For first time in 40 years, Congress debates U.S. president's nuclear power

By Ed Adamczyk  |  Nov. 14, 2017 at 1:34 PM
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Nov. 14 (UPI) -- For the first time in more than 40 years Tuesday, federal lawmakers on Capitol Hill held a hearing to question the sole authority of a United States president to order a nuclear strike.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened to examine presidential authority to order use of nuclear weapons. Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said it's time to review the president's authority to launch a nuclear strike.

Corker said last month that Trump has set the United States "on a path to World War III" in his dealings with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un. That position followed Trump's threat of "fire and fury like the world has never seen" if Pyongyang continues its nuclear missile program.

Corker was involved in a brief spat with Trump on Twitter last month -- in which the Tennessee Republican called the White House an "adult day care center." Tuesday, he said Congress needs to examine "the realities of the system."

The president, as commander in chief, is the sole arbiter or whether to use the U.S. nuclear arsenal -- an issue that hasn't been debated at the congressional level in more than 40 years.

The committee heard testimony from Robert Kehler, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, who said in his role he would have carried out a presidential order to use nuclear weapons. He added that if he was uncertain of the legality, he would consult his own advisers.

"Then what happens?" asked Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

"I don't know," Kehler replied, to nervous laughter in the committee chambers.

The actual launch of a nuclear missile is a classified process. Under current rules, a president could launch a nuclear strike by entering codes into a device known as "the football" -- a briefcase that always travels with the president -- and is not obligated to consult other government officials.

When asked before the hearing if he was concerned about Trump's authority, Corker said, "This is not specific to anyone."

Committee member Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had a different motive for the hearing.

"We are concerned that the president 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," Murphy said.

Another committee member, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has proposed legislation to require a president to obtain a declaration of war from Congress before they are able to order a nuclear strike.

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