Trump Wanted Tenfold Increase in Nuclear Arsenal, Surprising Military
WASHINGTON â" President Donald Trump said he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during a gathering this past summer of the nationâs highest ranking national security leaders, according to three officials who were in the room.
Trumpâs 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, Trumpâs 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 build-up. In interviews, they told NBC News that no such expansion is planned.Play Did Trump's call to expand nuclear arsenal lead to Tillerson's 'moron' remark? 3:24 autoplay autoplay
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 âmoron.â
Revelations of Trumpâs 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 âa 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,â according to the White House.
The presidentâs comments during the Pentagon meeting in July came in response to a chart shown during the meeting on the history of the U.S. and Russiaâs nuclear capabilities that showed Americaâs stockpile at its peak in the late 1960s, the officials said. Some officials present said they did not take Trumpâs 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 Americaâs 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.
âIf he were to increase the numbers, the Russians would match him, and the Chineseâ would ramp up their nuclear ambitions, Joe Cirincione, a nuclear expert and MSNBC contributor, said, referring to the president.
âThere hasnât been a military mission thatâs required a nuclear weapon in 71 years,â 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 differ ent world views, experiences and knowledge bases.
Related: Tillerson's Fury at Trump Required Intervention From Pence
Moreover, the presidentâs comments reveal that Trump, who suggested before his inauguration that the U.S. âmust greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,â 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 presidentâs 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 presidentâs 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. âIt wasnât just the number of people. It was the idea of focus,â according to one person familiar with the d iscussion. The thinking was: âMaybe we need to slow down a little and explain the whole worldâ from a big-picture perspective, this person said.
The Pentagon 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 Trumpâs 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.
Related: Tillerson Summoned to White House Amid Trump Fury
Asked for a response to the presidentâs 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 âthe Secretary of Defense has many closed sessions with the president and his cabinet members. Those conversations are privileged.â
At the time of the meeting, White told reporters the meeting âcovered the planet,â and that the presidentâs advisers âwent around the world,â outlining what she described as the challenges and opportunities for the U.S.
Two senior administration officials said the presidentâs advisers outlined the reasons an expansion of Americaâs nuclear arsenal is not feasible. They pointed to treaty obligations and budget restraints and noted to him that todayâs total conventional and nonconventional military arsenal leaves the U.S. in a stronger defense posture than it was when the nuclear arsenal alone was larger.
Still, officials said they are working to address the presidentâs concerns within the Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to be finalized by the end of 2017 or early next year. âHeâs all in for modernization,â one official said. âHis concerns are the U.S. stopped investing in this.âPlay Campaign Flashback: Trump's 2016 Nuclear Weapons Stance 1:45 autoplay autoplay
Officials present said that Trumpâs comments on a significantly increased arsenal came in response to a briefing slide that outlined Americaâs nuclear stockpile over the past 70 years. The president r eferenced the highest number on the chart â" about 32,000 in the late 1960s â" and told his team he wanted the U.S. to have that many now, officials said.
The U.S. currently has around 4,000 nuclear warheads in its military stockpile, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
The Pentagon is currently undergoing the long-planned posture review. Modernizing the arsenal is a step presidents continuously take that doesnât put the U.S. in violation of treaty obligations, Cirincione said.
âYou donât 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,â he said.
Itâs unclear which portion of the Pentagon briefing prompted Tillerson to call the president a âmoronâ after the meeting broke up and some advisers were gathered around. Officials who attended the two-hour session said it included a number of tense exchanges.
At one point, Trump responded to a presentation on the U.S. military presence in South Korea by asking why South Koreans arenât more appreciative and welcoming of American defense aid. The comment prompted intervention from a senior military official in the room to explain the overall relationship and why such help is ultimately beneficial to U.S. national security interests.
Trump has been inconsistent with regards to his stance on nuclear weapons.
At one of the earliest Republican debates, in December of 2015 , then-candidate Trump seemed to stumble through a question about the nuclear triad, the land, air, and sea-based systems present in a traditional nuclear arsenal.
Asked three months later about U.S. policy on nonproliferation, Trump said on CNN: "Maybe itâs going to have to be time to change, because so many people, you have Pakistan has it, you have China has it.â
When pressed, he allowed, "I donât want more nuclear weapons.â
But his suggestion that the world could see an increase in nuclear weapons after decades of post-Cold War reductions rattled Americaâs allies and drew criticism from foreign policy experts and U.S. officials at the time.
The president left the Pentagon on July 20, telling reporters th e meeting was âabsolutely great.âSource: Google News