Now we know why Rex Tillerson called Donald Trump a moron.

 In World
US President Donald Trump speaks during an event honoring the 2017 Stanley Cup Champions, The Pittsburgh Penguins, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 10, 2017.
President Donald Trump speaks during an event honoring the 2017 Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, on Tuesday.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Now we know why and when Rex Tillerson called Donald Trump a “fucking moron.”

According to NBC News, the secretary of state muttered the remark to colleagues on July 20 right after a meeting in the Pentagon—a review of U.S. military forces and operations worldwide—attended by Trump, his main advisers, and the top brass.

At one point in the meeting, a briefer showed the president a graph tracking the dramatic reduction in U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons over the past several decades. That reduction is widely interpreted as a success story about arms-control treaties, the end of the Cold War, and the declining dependence on weapons of catastrophic destruction. But Trump viewed it with alarm, telling the group that he wanted more nukes. Pointing to the graph’s peak year, 1969, when the U.S. had 32,000 nuclear weapons, Trump said he wanted that many nukes now.

Various officials talked him down, according to the NBC report, noting the legal and practical restrictions and the fact that the roughly 4,000 weapons in our current strategic arsenal are better able to carry out their missions than the much larger force of a half-century ago.

As the NBC report dryly put it, Trump’s “comments raised questions about his familiarity with the nuclear posture and other issues, officials said.” Those “other issues” included, well, nearly every issue and continent brought up, from Korea to Afghanistan and everywhere in between. Pentagon officials, the report continued, were “rattled” by the president’s lack of understanding on all fronts—though the meeting took place a full six months after he’d taken office.

This should have come as little surprise. Throughout the 2016 election campaign, Trump evinced both a thorough ignorance of national security policy and a cavalier boasting of his “good instinct for this stuff.” Hence his claims that he knew more than the generals about ISIS and that he knew a lot about “nuclear” because his uncle was a physicist at MIT. (This latter claim was particularly bizarre; my cousin is Argentina’s most celebrated choreographer, but that doesn’t mean I know a thing about modern dance or speak Spanish.)

All presidents are ignorant of certain issues when they come into office. Most are aware of their shortcomings and take care to study up on what they need to know. The uniqueness of Trump is that he has almost no self-awareness, deals with his flaws by projecting them onto others, and seems allergic to study. He has asked for his daily briefing to contain no more than three subjects, with no more than one page devoted to each, and containing only the consensus judgment with no space for dissenting views within the intelligence community. Presidents have easy access to the most highly classified information and, if they want, the most knowledgeable experts, in or out of government, on any subject. Yet Trump learns most of what he knows from Fox News and Breitbart.

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