Trump and Nuclear Weapons: Is the president right about "the nuclear"?


President Donald Trump has been remarkably consistent about much of his foreign policy vision. However, when it comes to nuclear weapons, Trump's statements have been contradictory and confusing. 

Does Trump desire for more states to develop nuclear weapons? Does he want to modernize the American nuclear arsenal, expand it or reduce it? 

What does he really want, and is he right?

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Trump's nuclear contradictions

On the campaign trail, Trump failed to display basic knowledge about U.S. nuclear capabilities. In one of the Republican primary debates when Hugh Hewett asked about the nuclear triad — U.S. nuclear devices in the air, land and sea — he answered in part by saying, "The biggest problem we have is nuclear— nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now." 

Trump repeatedly refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons. He considered the possibility of retaliating against a potential ISIS terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon, saying, "Somebody hits us [from] within ISIS, you wouldn't fight back with a nuke?"  

Trump has also considered using nuclear weapons on the European continent, presumably in response to some unknown act by some unknown actor, as he told Fox News on March 31, 2016, as reported by ThinkProgress

Europe is a big place. I’m not going to take cards off the table. We have nuclear capability. Now, our capability is going down rapidly because of what we’re doing. It’s in bad shape. The equipment is not properly maintained. ... And that’s a bad thing not a good thing. The last person to use nuclear would be Donald Trump. That’s the way I feel. I think it is a horrible thing. The thought of it is horrible. But I don’t want to take anything off the table. We have to negotiate. There will be times maybe when we’re going to be in a very deep, very difficult, very horrible negotiation. The last person — I’m not going to take it off the table.

The statements above reflected a sharp break from past presidents, who generally thought of nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent against major state actors, not against terrorist groups or as a fall-back for when negotiations break down.

Alex Wong/AFP

Trump and nukes: After the election

On Feb. 23, Trump said that the U.S. has "fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity" and that while, "it would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we're going to be at the top of the pack." 

But what does that actually mean? 

The United States has an arsenal of 1,740 deployed nuclear weapons, just under Russia's total of 1,950. Does that mean Trump wants to develop more, to catch up to the Russians, or does it mean that the U.S. needs a qualitative edge?

Reuters reports that the "United States is already in the midst of a $1 trillion, 30-year modernization of its aging ballistic missile submarines, bombers and land-based missiles." Additionally, Trump's new budget could include a major increase in spending on nuclear modernization.

The New START treaty between the U.S. and Russia dramatically reduces the number of both sides' nuclear warheads by Feb. 5, 2018. Trump referred to it as, "just another bad deal that the country made." 

Modernization and reduction can take place simultaneously. It seems Trump wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but isn't willing to take steps towards arms reduction.