Trump Wanted Tenfold Increase in Nuclear Arsenal, Surprising Military
Trump’s comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve.
According to the officials present, Trump’s advisers, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised. Officials briefly 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 buildup. In interviews, they told NBC News that no such expansion is planned.
The July 20 meeting was described as a lengthy and sometimes tense review of worldwide U.S. forces and operations. It was soon after the meeting broke up that officials who remained behind heard Tillerson say that Trump is a “moron.”
Revelations of Trump’s comments that day come as the U.S. is locked in a high-stakes standoff with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions and is poised to set off a fresh confrontation with Iran by not certifying to Congress that Tehran is in compliance with the 2015 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 U.S. and its allies with nuclear weapons,” according to the White House.
The president’s comments during the Pentagon meeting in July came in response to a chart shown on the history of the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear capabilities that showed America’s stockpile at its peak in the late 1960s, the officials said. Some officials present said they did not take Trump’s desire for more nuclear weapons to be literally instructing the military to increase the actual numbers. But his comments raised questions about his familiarity with the nuclear posture and other issues, officials said.
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 U.S. troops and military equipment.
Any increase in America’s nuclear arsenal would not only break with decades of U.S. nuclear doctrine but also violate international disarmament treaties signed by every president since Ronald Reagan. Nonproliferation experts warned that such a move could set off a global arms race.
“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 an 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.
Details of the July 20 meeting, which have not been previously reported, shed additional light on tensions among the commander in chief, members of his Cabinet and the uniformed leadership of the Pentagon stemming from vastly different world views, experiences and knowledge bases.
Related: Tillerson’s Fury at Trump Required Intervention From Pence
Moreover, the president’s comments reveal that Trump, who suggested before his inauguration that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” voiced that desire as commander in chief directly to the military leadership in the heart of the Pentagon this summer.
Some officials in the Pentagon meeting were rattled by the president’s desire for more nuclear weapons and his understanding of other national security issues from the Korean Peninsula to Iraq and Afghanistan, the officials said.
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 Pentagon meeting was also attended by Vice President Mike Pence; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin; Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman; Defense Secretary James Mattis; Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan; Stephen Bannon, then Trump’s chief strategist; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser; and Reince Preibus, then chief of staff. Sean Spicer, then the White House spokesman, and Keith Schiller, who was director of Oval Office operations at the time, also accompanied Trump to the Pentagon that day.
Related: Donald Trump Has History of Mixed Messages on Nuclear Weapons
Asked for a response to the president’s comments, a White House official speaking 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.”