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Next President To Face Challenges On Nuclear Weapons


Nuclear weapons have been a surprise issue in this year's presidential campaign. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have faced questions in public and private settings about nuclear policy. And one of those questions and an answer by Hillary Clinton recently came out in a hacked recording. It has Clinton breaking ranks with President Obama on nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. NPR's David Welna has more.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The recording was posted online by the Washington Free Beacon. It's from a Hillary Clinton fundraiser in suburban Washington, D.C., eight months ago. You can hear a donor asking if she'd cancel a new program putting nuclear warheads on bomber-mounted cruise missiles if President Obama won't. Then comes her reply.


HILLARY CLINTON: I certainly would be inclined to do that for a number of reasons as - that you know so well. The last thing we need are, you know, sophisticated cruise missiles that are nuclear-armed.

ANDY WEBER: I was very pleased with her answer to my question.

WELNA: That's Andy Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear programs. Since leaving that job two years ago, Weber's been pushing policymakers to abandon the nuclear-tipped cruise missile program.

WEBER: This would indeed be new. We have never had a stealth bomber or a penetrating bomber deliver a nuclear cruise missile.

WELNA: In her answer to Weber's question, Clinton also points to what other not-so-friendly nuclear powers are up to.


CLINTON: We know that Russia, Pakistan are developing tactical nukes, meaning both short- and longer-term missiles. This is one of the most dangerous developments imaginable.

WELNA: For another nuclear arms expert, Clinton's answer raises a red flag.

JEFFREY LEWIS: It's clear to me at least she didn't understand what he was asking.

WELNA: Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

LEWIS: He asked about the long-range standoff weapon, which is a strategic nuclear weapon, and she gave an answer about tactical nuclear weapon.

WELNA: Donald Trump has also faced some tough questions about nuclear weapons. Asked at a GOP candidate debate on CNN last December about which leg of the nuclear triad he would prioritize, Trump did not seem to realize that air, land and submarine-based nuclear missiles make up the nuclear triads three legs.


DONALD TRUMP: Nuclear's just - the power, the devastation is very important to me.

WELNA: Whoever ends up as the next president, she or he will have to decide whether to continue a 30-year, trillion-dollar modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. At his first presidential debate, Trump sounded inclined to carry out the hugely expensive upgrade.


TRUMP: Russia's been expanding their - they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint. I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s. They're old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not keeping up with other countries.

WELNA: The Air Force acknowledges the B-52s are old but still a potent weapon. In the recording of her fundraiser, Clinton sounds dubious about doing a full-scale nuclear upgrade.


CLINTON: Do we have to do any of it? If we have to do some of it, how much do we have to do? That's going to be a tough question.

WELNA: New presidential administrations typically hold what's called a Nuclear Posture Review. Former Pentagon nuclear official Weber says it will come at a critical time.

WEBER: The risk of escalation - accidental escalation into a nuclear war is perhaps as high now or maybe even higher than during the Cold War.

WELNA: And the next president would have the sole authority to launch such a war. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.