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Senate Panel Will Question Presidential Authority To Launch Nuclear Strike


All right, under the U.S. Constitution, only Congress can declare war. And yet, as commander in chief, President Trump has the exclusive authority to order a nuclear attack with no other approval necessary. Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds the first congressional hearing in more than four decades on whether the president should have that kind of power. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: One senator who's pushed hard for today's hearing is Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey.


ED MARKEY: I think that the interest in this issue is growing as it becomes more possible that the United States could, in fact, contemplate a preemptive first strike against North Korea.

WELNA: Only one person's ever ordered a nuclear strike. It was President Harry Truman. And he addressed the nation in August of 1945.


HARRY TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy.

WELNA: George Shultz was Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. Putting your hand on the Bible and swearing to be President, Shultz says, is the least of it.

GEORGE SHULTZ: The important moment is when you put your hand on a nuclear trigger. You're not president then, you're God. Where is it written that a man should be able to press a button and kill a million people?

WELNA: In fact, under the Atomic Energy Act, which Congress passed and Truman signed into law, every president has full control of the nation's nuclear arsenal. Bruce Blair is an expert at Princeton on the protocols in place for a nuclear strike.

BRUCE BLAIR: There are no safeguards on the president's authority to order the use of nuclear weapons. He simply can order up their use to the Pentagon war room, and they will carry out the order.

WELNA: President Trump has not said whether he'd order a nuclear attack. But in August, he had this warning for the North Koreans.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

WELNA: Then at the U.N. General Assembly, Trump threatened to, in his words, totally destroy North Korea. Nuclear launch expert Blair says there's no mystery why Congress is reexamining the president's sweeping nuclear authority.

BLAIR: I think it's clearly the character and temperament of President Trump that's driving concern about the possible first use of nuclear weapons in a reckless or impetuous way.

WELNA: Another respected nuclear weapons expert has reached a similar conclusion.

JEFFREY LEWIS: I think it's definitely because of who's sitting in the Oval Office.

WELNA: That's Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Right now, he says, elections determine who sits in the Oval Office. And as such, they constitute the nuclear launch system's only safeguard.

LEWIS: If you're going to give the commander in chief nuclear weapons, you are accepting, to a certain degree, that the commander in chief is going to be able to use those weapons as he or she sees fit.

WELNA: The question senators will grapple with today, should all that power be left in the hands of just one person? David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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