Earlier this month, Americans had a chance to examine what was arguably the scariest question of the 2016 campaign: Do you really want Donald Trump to have the nuclear codes?
Thankfully both President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un dialed back their threats this week, and in America, the focus has shifted to terrifying domestic issues. But North Korea still appears to be on track to develop a nuclear-tipped long-range missile in the next few years. There’s little hope that this will be the last time we’ll have Trump at the helm during a nuclear scare, so it’s worth examining what we’ve learned about how the president views the most terrifying weapon at his disposal.
Hearing the U.S. president promise last week to respond to any North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was astounding — though perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Trump has been publicly discussing his vivid fears about nuclear weapons for decades, predating any serious talk of him running for president. These comments suggest that Trump thinks about nuclear annihilation far more than the average American — but he simultaneously has a particularly weak understanding of how the strategy surrounding it works. That’s created the frightening mix that was on display last week: It appears that Trump is well aware of the awesome threat posed by nuclear weapons, but he thinks it can be addressed like a problem in the board room (of a reality TV show).
There’s one person who significantly influenced President Trump’s thinking about nuclear weapons: his uncle John Trump, who was an MIT research scientist. Just as President Trump frequently cites his degree from the Wharton School of Business to show he’s “like, a really smart person,” he often mentions his Uncle John as proof that this intelligence is the result of “very good genes.”
By all accounts, John Trump actually was brilliant. He designed one of the first million-volt X-ray generators in 1937 and did radar research for the Allies during World War II. When John Trump died in 1985, his lab director, James Melcher, said that over three decades he “would be approached by people of all sorts because he could make megavolt beams of ions and electrons — death rays. What did he do with it? Cancer research, sterilizing sludge out in Deer Island (a waste-disposal facility), all sorts of wondrous things. He didn’t touch the weapons stuff.”
Yet, John Trump’s nephew mainly mentions what he learned from him about nuclear weapons — which is basically, that they’re bad. “My uncle used to tell me about nuclear before nuclear was nuclear,” Trump told the Boston Globe in 2015. “He would tell me, ‘There are things that are happening that could be potentially so bad for the world in terms of weaponry.’”
Back in 2004, Trump mentioned his uncle when a Playboy interviewer asked him to explain why he doesn’t think his buildings will still be standing in 100 years:
I had an uncle who was a great professor and a brilliant man — Dr. John Trump, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His whole life was devoted to the study and eradication of cancer, and sadly, he died of cancer. But he was a brilliant scientist, and he would tell me weapons are getting so powerful today that humanity is in tremendous trouble. This was 25 years ago, but he was right. The world is rocky, and some terrible things are going to happen. That’s why I lead the life I do. I enjoy it. I know life is fragile, and if the world looks like this a hundred years from now, we’ll either be very lucky or have found unbelievably good leaders somewhere down the line.
A month before Trump was inaugurated, Mother Jones looked at Trump’s many public remarks about nuclear war and noted that he’s often spoken as if he thinks nuclear war is inevitable. Here’s Trump in a 1990 Playboy interview:
I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It’s a little like sickness. People don’t believe they’re going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
This is a frightening thing to hear (Trump has admitted, “Look, I’m very much a fatalist”), but as the New York Daily News reports, over the years, he has actually laid out what he believes is the path to our salvation. Unsurprisingly, it involves Trump single-handedly saving humanity with his superior negotiation skills. Here’s an excerpt from a 1984 New York Times profile, in which a young Trump once again raised concerns about a nuclear holocaust:
His greatest dream is to personally do something about the problem and, characteristically, Donald Trump thinks he has an answer to nuclear armament: Let him negotiate arms agreements — he who can talk people into selling $100 million properties to him for $13 million. Negotiations is an art, he says and I have a gift for it.
The idea that he would ever be allowed to got into a room alone and negotiate for the United States, let alone be successful in disarming the world, seems the naive musing of an optimistic, deluded young man who has never lost at anything he has tried. But he believes that through years of making his views known and through supporting candidates who share his views, it could someday happen.
Later that year, a Washington Post piece noted that Trump hoped to “perhaps one day fulfill his fantasy of becoming the U.S. negotiator on nuclear arms limitation talks with the Soviets.”
“It’s something that somebody should do that knows how to negotiate and not the kind of representatives that I have seen in the past.”
He could learn about missiles, quickly, he says.
“It would take an hour-and-a-half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles … I think I know most of it anyway. You’re talking about just getting updated on a situation …”
The problem, in addition to Trump’s overestimation of his negotiating skills, is that it doesn’t seem he’s devoted much effort to learning anything about missiles, or nuclear strategy in general. During the campaign, he repeatedly demonstrated a lack of familiarity with some very basic concepts surrounding nuclear weapons.
During a Republican primary debate, Trump could not answer a question about his “priority among our nuclear triad” (the nation’s land-, sea-, and air-based systems for delivering nuclear weapons). It was clear from the context of the question that it was about maintaining our aging weapons systems, but Trump answered, “Well, first of all, I think we need somebody absolutely that we can trust, who is totally responsible, who really knows what he or she is doing. That is so powerful and so important.”
A candidate with no government experience might be excused for not knowing the term “nuclear triad” (Senator Marco Rubio jumped in to explain). But last August, Joe Scarborough claimed on Morning Joe that Trump asked an advisor why the U.S. can’t use its nuclear weapons:
Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump, and three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked, at one point, “If we have them, why can’t we use them?”
Several weeks later, during his first debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump said he would not conduct a nuclear “first strike” — but in the same breath, he said he would leave all options open. “I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over,” Trump said, adding moments later, “At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table.”
Several times during the campaign, Trump suggested that Japan and South Korea should get their own nuclear weapons if they aren’t willing to pay the full cost of having U.S. military personnel stationed in their country. In a May 2016 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Trump described the situation like a business negotiation.
“They have to pay. And you know what? I’m prepared to walk, and if they have to defend themselves against North Korea — we have a maniac over there,” Trump said. “In my opinion, if they don’t take care of us properly, if they don’t respect us enough to take care of us properly, then you know what’s going to happen Wolf? Very simple: They’re going to have to defend themselves.”
There’s little evidence that being president has expanded Trump’s understanding of nuclear issues. In the midst of last week’s war of words with Kim Jong-un, Trump offered Americans the false assurance that he’s fixed up the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the past six months — though with well over 4,000 nuclear warheads, insufficient fire power against North Korea is certainly not a concern.
And despite access to the world’s top nuclear experts, the New York Times reported that Trump’s improvised threat to Kim Jong-un last week was the result of his belief that he alone understands how to deal with the dictator:
The president, people close to him say, believes he has a better feel for Mr. Kim than his advisers do. He thinks of Mr. Kim as someone used to pushing people around, and Mr. Trump thinks he needs to show that he cannot be pushed.
During the campaign, Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear-proliferation initiative, said Trump’s comparisons to the business world don’t make sense and that Trump’s view of nuclear weapons is deeply troubling.
“He understands something, that there is something special about them, but what he has to understand is what’s beyond [that]; their awesome destructive power,” Cirincione told NBC News.
“He doesn’t understand their role in our security policy. What he’s saying? He argues purely from a good gut instinct. Is that the way you make nuclear policy?”
Under President Trump, apparently the answer is yes.