Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Our broadcast signal serving the St. George area (KUER 90.9) is operating on low power. Our broadcast signal serving Emery County area (88.3) is off the air. More information.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Examines President's Ability To Order A Nuclear Strike


The authority of a U.S. president to singlehandedly order a nuclear strike has gone unquestioned by Congress for decades. Today, that changed. The Republican-led Senate foreign relations committee posed a key question. Could anything keep President Trump from launching a nuclear attack on his own? NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Democrats on the foreign relations panel pushed its Republican chairman, Bob Corker, to hold today's hearing. Ed Markey of Massachusetts led that effort.


ED MARKEY: Thank you for having this very important hearing. I requested this several weeks ago, and I just think it's so important.

WELNA: Markey is the lead sponsor of a bill that would require congressional approval prior to any nuclear first strike. Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy reminded his colleagues that this is hardly an abstract debate.


CHRIS MURPHY: We are concerned that the president of the United States is so unstable, is so volatile, has a decision-making process that is so quixotic that he might order a nuclear weapons strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. national security interests.

WELNA: One of the witnesses was Brian McKeon, a nuclear arms expert at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. He reminded the senators that Congress alone under Article 1 of the Constitution has the power to declare war.


BRIAN MCKEON: To be sure, the president possesses the constitutional authority to defend against sudden attack or to pre-empt an imminent attack. But Article 2 does not give him carte blanche to take the country to war.

WELNA: But General Robert Kehler, who commanded U.S. strategic forces under Obama, said the decision to use nuclear weapons was not up to Congress.


ROBERT KEHLER: Only the president of the United States can order the employment of U.S. nuclear weapons.

WELNA: Still, Kehler said the military was not obliged to follow an illegal order, even from the commander in chief. That prompted this question from Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin.


BEN CARDIN: Even if ordered by the president of the United States to use a nuclear first strike, you believe that under - because of legalities, you retain that decision to disobey the commander in chief?


WELNA: Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson pressed the retired general further on whether he would have disobeyed a nuclear strike order if he thought it was illegal.


KEHLER: I would have said, I have a question about this. And I would have said, I'm not ready to proceed.

RON JOHNSON: And then what happens?

KEHLER: Well, you know, as I say, I don't know.

WELNA: The result, all parties agreed, would be a constitutional crisis. Idaho Republican Jim Risch warned his colleagues that this discussion could be sending North Korea the wrong signals.


JIM RISCH: Pyongyang needs to understand that they're dealing with a person who's commander in chief right now, who is very focused on defending this country. And he will do what is necessary to defend this country.

WELNA: As the two-hour hearing ended, Massachusetts' Markey thanked Chairman Corker again for kicking off a much-needed debate.


MARKEY: But I don't think that the assurances that I've received today will be satisfying to the American people. I think they can still realize that Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.