Any increase in America’s nuclear arsenal would not only break with decades of US nuclear doctrine but also violate international disarmament treaties signed by every president since Ronald Reagan.
Apparently, possessing the largest nuclear arsenal in the world isn’t enough for President Donald Trump. To wit, NBC News is reporting that Trump had asked for a nearly tenfold increase in the US’s nuclear arsenal during a Pentagon defense briefing in July involving several of the administration’s most-senior officials.
According to the officials present at the meeting, Trump’s advisers, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised by Trump’s request, and quickly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the build-up. In interviews. The president reportedly relented, and no such expansion is planned.
The description of the meeting was presumably leaked to NBC by the same sources who furnished the story about Tillerson’s now-infamous “fucking moron” comment. NBC reported that officials who lingered behind after the contentious July 20 security review heard Tillerson call the president a moron – suggesting that Tillerson made the comment in response to Trump’s “nuclear vision.”
However, NBC clarified that it’s unclear which portion of the Pentagon briefing prompted Tillerson’s comment because officials who attended the two-hour session said it included a number of tense exchanges.
The revelation comes as the US and South Korea are bracing for North Korea to test more short-range rockets around the opening of the Chinese Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress on Oct. 18. Trump also recently revealed that his administration wouldn’t certify the Iran deal, leaving it to Congress to decide if the country has complied with the terms of the 2015 multilateral Iranian nuclear deal.
Trump convened a meeting Tuesday with his national security team in which they discussed “a range of options to respond to any form of North Korean aggression or, if necessary, to prevent North Korea from threatening the US and its allies with nuclear weapons,” according to the White House.
Several people who attended the meeting said they didn’t believe the president’s comments represented a literal desire for the military to increase its stockpiles of nuclear missiles but instead were rooted in Trump’s limited understanding of nuclear issues. The remark followed a presentation comparing the US’s nuclear capabilities with those of Russia.
Two officials present said that at multiple points in the discussion, the president expressed a desire not just for more nuclear weapons, but for additional US troops and military equipment.
As NBC pointed out, any increase in America’s nuclear arsenal would not only break with decades of US nuclear doctrine but also violate international disarmament treaties signed by every president since Ronald Reagan, potentially triggering the first nuclear arms race since the end of the Cold War.
If he were to increase the numbers, the Russians would match him, and the Chinese” would ramp up their nuclear ambitions, Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert and MSNBC contributor, said, referring to the president.
“There hasn’t been a military mission that’s required a nuclear weapon in 71 years,” Cirincione said.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Trump suggested the nuclear arsenal should be expanded. Before the inauguration, then president-elect Trump tweeted that the US “must greatly expand its nuclear arsenal.” It’s also not the first time that the president reportedly demonstrated ignorance about nuclear weapons policy. MSNBC reported that Trump once asked advisers why the US didn’t use its nuclear arsenal more often.
Trump tweeted a video of himself and Vice President Mike Pence leaving the Pentagon following the July 20 meeting.
According to NBC, the July 20 meeting was the second in a series of national security-focused meetings that reportedly left Trump’s military advisers feeling frustrated by the president’s ignorance about foreign policy issues.
That meeting followed one held a day earlier in the White House Situation Room focused on Afghanistan in which the president stunned some of his national security team. At that July 19 meeting, according to senior administration officials, Trump asked military leaders to fire the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and compared their advice to that of a New York restaurant consultant whose poor judgment cost a business valuable time and money.
Two people familiar with the discussion said the Situation Room meeting, in which the president’s advisers anticipated he would sign off on a new Afghanistan strategy, was so unproductive that the advisers decided to continue the discussion at the Pentagon the next day in a smaller setting where the president could perhaps be more focused. “It wasn’t just the number of people. It was the idea of focus,” according to one person familiar with the discussion. The thinking was: “Maybe we need to slow down a little and explain the whole world” from a big-picture perspective, this person said.
The July 20 meeting was also attended by Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford, Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva, Undersecretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Stephen Bannon, who served then as Trump’s chief strategist, Jared Kushner who is a senior adviser to the president and Reince Preibus who was then chief of staff. Sean Spicer who was then White House spokesman, and Keith Schiller who was Director of Oval Office Operations at the time, also accompanied Trump to the Pentagon that day.
Asked for a response to the president’s comments, a White House official speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said that the nuclear arsenal was not a primary topic of the briefing. Dana White, spokesperson for the Pentagon said “the Secretary of Defense has many closed sessions with the president and his cabinet members. Those conversations are privileged.”
However, White House officials say the president supports the modernization of the US’s nuclear arsenal and clarified that his concerns weren’t about having enough nukes, but about the fact that the US stopped investing in the program.
Still, officials said they are working to address the president’s concerns within the Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to be finalized by the end of 2017 or early next year.
“He’s all in for modernization,” one official said. “His concerns are the U.S. stopped investing in this.”
The Pentagon is currently undergoing the long-planned posture review. Modernizing the arsenal is a step presidents continuously take that doesn’t put the US in violation of treaty obligations, Cirincione said.
You don’t get in trouble for modernizing. You do get in trouble if you do one of two things: if you increase the numbers. The strategic weapons are treaty limited. Two, if you build a new type of weapon that is prohibited by a treaty,” he said.
Officials present said that Trump’s comments on a significantly increased arsenal came in response to a briefing slide that outlined America’s nuclear stockpile over the past 70 years. The president referenced the highest number on the chart — about 32,000 in the late 1960s — and told his team he wanted the U.S. to have that many now, officials said.
Watch | Did Trump’s call to expand nuclear arsenal lead to Tillerson’s ‘moron’ remark?
Top photo | In this file photo taken June 25, 2014, an inert Minuteman 3 missile is seen in a training launch tube at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. (Charlie Riedel/AP)