War Stories

Trump’s Nuclear Meltdown

Only this president could think 4,000 nukes aren’t enough.

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.

The message is thus clearly sent out to all aides: This president is not interested in learning. To argue your case, find a way to align your views with his buttons, then push them unashamedly. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, reportedly persuaded him to send more troops to Afghanistan in part by showing him a photo from the 1970s of women in Kabul wearing miniskirts. (See, he seemed to suggest, Afghans can be just like us.) Maybe Tillerson, McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are figuring out other paint-by-numbers games for keeping Trump in their lane on other matters, too.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of NBC’s story is what it reveals about Trump’s attitude toward military force. His idolatry of military officers is well-known, but less noted is his idolatry of big guns for their own sake. He wanted to hold a military parade in honor of his inauguration (until he was told it would tear up the streets of downtown Washington). He ordered a huge increase in the military’s budget but seems averse to defending allies or to fighting any sort of war, except for those that he thinks can be won by bombing terrorists or tyrants. The weapons used for fighting those kinds of wars—drones, smart bombs, small units of special forces, coastal patrol boats—don’t cost much. What costs a lot of money are aircraft carriers, planes, tanks, and personnel. What is Trump’s rationale for spending more on those? He hasn’t said because—this should be obvious—he doesn’t know.

He just wants bigger, shinier, costlier. He wants military parades as a show of strength. He told his aides he wanted 32,000 nuclear weapons because that was the largest number of nuclear weapons that a president ever had, and he wasn’t going to be outgunned by any other president. Forget about how the budget should be allocated, what America’s role in the world should be, or why on earth we need to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons again. (U.S. Strategic Command officers already have a hard time explaining, when pressed, why they even need the 4,000 nukes they have.) Those things, in his mind, aren’t important.

Sen. Robert Corker said in his New York Times interview over the weekend that Trump views the White House as the set of a reality-TV show—not an original insight but a searing one, given that it came from the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But what’s often overlooked in this observation is that Trump takes this view not only on the White House but on the whole world. It’s the only view he knows, after all—hence his obsession with Nielsen ratings, poll numbers, Twitter followers, and IQ scores (some of them fictitious) as the prime measures of value.

It is a hair-raising fact that though few Republicans have seconded Corker or Tillerson’s appraisals of Trump, still fewer have spoken out in their president’s defense. The day after Corker’s interview in the Times, CNN staffers phoned all 52 Republican senators to see if any of them would come on Wolf Blitzer’s show to discuss politics that day. Not one assented. They chose not to protest that one of the party’s leaders in the Senate likened Trump to a patient in an “adult day care center.” They don’t seem to mind that the nation’s top diplomat called Trump a “fucking moron.” And no one has as yet rebutted the latest report on Trump’s appalling cluelessness about nuclear weapons. The Republicans don’t deny any of these indictments, yet they do nothing about them; they do nothing to address the clear and present danger.