ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Three South Carolina lawmakers, in the weeks before President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2021 budget request was unveiled, lobbied the president to direct more money to the National Nuclear Security Administration and nuclear weapons work, in general, two memos reviewed by the Aiken Standard show.
U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, all Palmetto State Republicans, urged the president on Jan. 16 and 17, respectively, to revise the fiscal year 2021 "topline for the NNSA to $20 billion." The two memos – one from senators and one from congressmen – are signed by a total 41 people.
Not getting the $20 billion, they warned in writing, could jeopardize a slew of nuclear warhead programs as well as plutonium pit production, an enduring weapons mission with a majority stake in South Carolina – specifically the Savannah River Site, a sprawling nuclear reserve near Aiken that Wilson has represented for years.
Insufficient funding would risk U.S. national security, they wrote, and would at the same time embolden "anti-nuclear Democrats who oppose your effort to rebuild our military." Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, senators from Massachusetts and Vermont, have both spoken out against bolstered plutonium pit production, describing it as "unnecessary, unachievable and ill-advised."
Their stance was detailed in a Sept. 13, 2019, letter, on which the Aiken Standard previously reported.
Plutonium pits are nuclear weapon cores, often referred to as triggers. At least 80 pits per year are needed by 2030, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, a major Pentagon policy document. Pit production over the next decade could cost $9 billion, according a rough Congressional Budget Office estimate.
Trump's fiscal year 2021 blueprint – unveiled Monday at a total $4.8 trillion – included $19.8 billion for the NNSA, the U.S. Department of Energy's weapons-and-nonproliferation arm. About $15.6 billion of that was flagged for nuclear weapons programs, a roughly 25% increase compared to the 2020 enacted level.
Wilson was "supportive of the NNSA funding" on Monday and looked forward to digging into the finer details, a person familiar with the matter told the Aiken Standard at the time.
"You have made admirable progress in the first three years of your Administration on nuclear modernization," wrote the collective group of lawmakers, which included Senate Armed Services Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla.; House Armed Services Ranking Member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas; and Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican who grew close to Trump during the impeachment process.
The White House's latest request includes $35.4 billion for the Energy Department, which stewards the Savannah River Site, and $740.5 billion for national defense ventures, more broadly.
The tandem letters – worded quite similarly – were written out of serious concern for the National Nuclear Security Administration's potential allotment.
Inhofe during a Thursday morning committee hearing acknowledged the process: "We had to go in and talk to the president because they had dropped the budget down about 8% on NNSA, and nobody was aware of it except the Department of Energy," he said. "So we went and talked to the president, and had a meeting, and we brought it back up to just under the 20 figure."
The January memos requested an Oval Office meeting with Trump.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, who leads the National Nuclear Security Administration, has often said the president is committed to modernizing the nation's nuclear arsenal and the related infrastructure. The president's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is a longtime South Carolina politician. Mulvaney also has ties to the Office of Management and Budget.
In a June 2019 interview with the Aiken Standard, Gordon-Hagerty (who is also the Energy Department's under secretary for nuclear security) said she had "total and complete support" from the Trump administration.
"They are absolutely wedded to the prospect of making sure that we have a robust and a resilient enterprise," she continued. "Not only now, but in the future."
Gordon-Hagerty on Tuesday told 2020 Nuclear Deterrence Summit attendees she was "optimistic that America can reinvigorate its nuclear deterrent for generations to come." Up-to-date nuclear weapons, she said, were of an utmost priority.