By Dino Grandoni for The Washington Post
A year-and-a-half ago, Donald Trump was thrown a question about the U.S. nuclear arsenal that he still hasn't answered very satisfactorily.
"The B-52s are older than I am. The missiles are old. The submarines are aging out," conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump during a presidential primary debate in December 2015. "What's your priority among our nuclear triad?"
The "triad" Hewitt was referring to is the three ways by which the United States can deliver thermonuclear bombs to enemy targets abroad. Currently, the U.S. military can launch nuclear attacks using intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from land, missiles launched from submarines and ordnance dropped by plane.
Trump's rambling response at the time, during which he went on a false tangent claiming to have been "totally against going into Iraq," betrayed a stunning lack of knowledge about the singular responsibility of the nation's commander in chief: Control of the nation's nukes.
Trump has a history of imprecision when discussing nuclear weapons, to put it kindly.This is true of other topics, but other topics are of less consequence than nuclear annihilation. The breadth and depth of knowledge Trump demonstrates about the most dangerous weapons possessed by the country he now commands has not gotten much better since he became president.
Amid the saber-rattling between Trump and North Korea's erratic leader, Kim Jong Un, the president claimed on Twitter that much has changed with the U.S. arsenal since he was handed the nuclear codes in January.
The pair of tweets appear to be intended as a projection of strength during a period of brinkmanship between the two countries. They followed an assertion from Trump that North Korea's threats would be “met with fire and fury" and come at a moment when trust in the words coming out of the president's mouth is paramount.
But was Trump's first order as president to modernize the nuclear arsenal? And is it now more powerful than ever because of Trump?
No, and no.
Trump's first order as president concerned the Affordable Care Act. However, his first national security memorandum, issued a week after inauguration, called for a new "Nuclear Posture Review," or NPR. That is the document in which the U.S. military spells out its nuclear weapons strategy. The review officially began in April and won't be completed until the end of the year, the Pentagon said.
More to the point, an effort to modernize the nation's nuclear weapons is indeed underway — thanks to former President Obama. Trump's predecessor signed into law an overhaul that will cost $1 trillion over 30 years. The plan includes updating equipment for the land, sea and air legs of the nuclear triad. But that plan is not expected to be deployed until well into the next decade.
Nuclear experts who talked to The Post were flabbergasted by Trump's assertion. Here's a sampling of the reaction:
- “Nothing’s happened yet,” said Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “Obviously, these changes take time. You can’t do much in six or seven months.”
- “Any decision that the president were to take now, or that he took in January, would take years to implement,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who served in the Obama administration as the National Security Council's senior director for nonproliferation and arms control. “I'm very skeptical of the idea that Trump believes that he has modernized or adjusted our arsenal, because there have been no visible changes to it.”
- “If he’s been able to modernize the nuclear arsenal in the six months he’s been in office, he should have no trouble selling Brooklyn Bridges to anybody,” said Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Obama administration. “To say ‘bingo, the nuclear arsenal is modernized’ is fiction.”
Unsurprisingly, Trump's claims on the weapons modernization got "Four Pinocchios" from The Post's fact-checkers. But Trump's past rhetoric on how he would deploy the weapons at hand today manages to be even more confusing.
During another presidential debate in September of last year — this one against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — Trump was asked if he would ever use a nuclear weapon first in any conflict.
His muddled answer. Yes. And no.
"I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over," he said.
But then he contradicted himself. "At the same time, we have to be prepared," Trump said. "I can’t take anything off the table."