WASHINGTON — 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 nation’s highest ranking national security leaders, according to three officials who were in the room.
Trump’s 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, Trump’s 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.
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 “moron.”
Revelations of Trump’s 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.
The president’s 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 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.
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 America’s 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.
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