Does Trump really want to increase America's nuclear arsenal tenfold? Update: "Absolutely false," says Mattis

This is the story that sent him into a tirade this morning about yanking NBC’s broadcast license. They’ve been killing him lately, first breaking the story about Tillerson allegedly calling him a moron, then revealing Trump’s anger about it and John Kelly’s damage control, and now allegedly exposing Trump’s demand for building out America’s nuclear deterrent by a factor of ten. (Supposedly it was after the meeting at which he made that demand that T-Rex called him a “moron.”) The network’s not so good about exposing entertainment-industry predators even when they have hard audio evidence, but if you want anonymously sourced West Wing intrigue, they’re your go-to guys.

I think Trump’s probably right when he says they’re distorting what happened in the meeting at the Pentagon on July 20th. The headline to NBC’s piece makes it sound as though this was an insistent demand by POTUS, as if he woke up one morning during the summer and decided the most bad-ass tough-guy thing he could do to project “strength” would be to launch a massive global nuclear proliferation initiative. In reality it sounds like he interjected during a Powerpoint presentation to wonder why America has so few nukes now compared to its arsenal at the height of the Cold War. That would be a perfectly MAGA-esque instinct: Fewer nuclear bombs means America is no longer as “great” as it once was. But I don’t get the sense from the story itself that Trump dug in on the subject and asked the Pentagon to draft a budget for 30,000 nukes or whatever. It sounds like it was a question born of ignorance — why is our stockpile so much smaller now? — and that ignorance was corrected and he let it go.

Remember, he seemingly didn’t know what the “nuclear triad” was during primary debates. There’s a learning curve for him.

The president’s comments during the Pentagon meeting in July came in response to a chart shown on the history of the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear capabilities that showed America’s stockpile at its peak in the late 1960s, the officials said. Some officials present said they did not take Trump’s 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…

Some officials in the Pentagon meeting were rattled by the president’s desire for more nuclear weapons and his understanding of other national security issues from the Korean Peninsula to Iraq and Afghanistan, the officials said…

Two senior administration officials said the president’s advisers outlined the reasons an expansion of America’s nuclear arsenal is not feasible. They pointed to treaty obligations and budget restraints and noted to him that today’s 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.

He’s talked fleetingly and offhandedly about building more nukes before. From December, during the presidential transition:

When he was quizzed on “Morning Joe” about whether that wouldn’t trigger an arms race with Russia, he said, “Let it be a new arms race.” Strength. The topic came up again during an interview he gave a month into his term, when he said, “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.” Again, strength. America’s going to be “top of the pack” in everything during the age of MAGA. Especially when it comes to the most fearsome military weapon on Earth.

But that’s the point, ironically. Because America’s already at the top of the pack militarily, it has less of a need for nukes than weaker powers do. The whole lesson of the North Korea standoff is that nuclear weapons are an equalizer, a way for a comparatively weak power to keep a much stronger one at bay. Pakistan wanted nukes for the same reason, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to hold off India long-term through conventional means. (Iran is more complicated. The Shiite bomb is potentially a shield against America but also a sword against Israel and the Sunnis.) When your conventional military can roll over virtually any enemy and you can deliver nuclear weapons anywhere on Earth if you need to, you can get by with a minimal nuclear deterrent. That was the point the brass made to Trump, apparently. And in his semi-defense, it’s not as though he’s unique in feeling anxiety about America having a smaller arsenal than it used to:

We don’t need a big arsenal, we’re bound by treaty not to have a big arsenal, having a big arsenal would force Russia and China to build big arsenals of their own, and most importantly we can’t afford a big arsenal. The most recent CBO estimate to modernize the aging arsenal we currently have is $400 billion over the next 10 years, a 15 percent increase over an earlier projection. Imagine the sticker price on building ten times as many modern bombs, all or most of which would be superfluous to our needs. If anything, as entitlements eat up more of the federal budget over time, the arsenal might need to shrink.

So Trump asked a silly question, allegedly. But arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis wonders: Why can’t a president ask a silly question without having it leak, especially at a meeting with top military brass at the Pentagon to discuss big-picture strategic concerns? This story must have originated with someone in a position of real power who was privy to that meeting, almost by definition someone in the cabinet or at the top of the military. Did Tillerson or one of his deputies relay it to to NBC to embarrass Trump and try to provide context for the “moron” remark? Couldn’t blame POTUS for firing him if he did.

Update: Trump never “called for an increase,” Mattis confirms. Whether he questioned the current number of warheads is still a mystery, but even NBC doesn’t claim that Trump walked out of the Pentagon meeting in July wanting or expecting a bigger arsenal.