Then, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, on Oct. 22, 2016. 
Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Contradicting his own aides, Trump welcomes nuclear ‘arms race’

The Rachel Maddow Show, 12/22/16, 8:59 PM ET

Trump tweet startles with apparent nuclear policy reversal

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President-elect Trump, talks with Rachel Maddow about what Donald Trump meant to say in a new tweet that seems to reverse U.S. policy on nuclear weapons.
Late last week, apropos of nothing, Donald Trump rattled much of the world with an alarmingly ambiguous tweet about nuclear weapons: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Within hours, the president-elect’s aides, eager to lower the temperature, downplayed the significance of the statement.

Kellyanne Conway told Rachel, for example, “What he’s merely saying is he wants us to be ready to defend ourselves and he’s not making new policy.” Jason Miller added soon after that the president-elect is not starting a new arms race.

Trump said the exact opposite on Friday morning, telling MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski:
“Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
When considering the threats a Trump presidency may pose to the nation, his critics generally point to concerns such as the environment, public health and health security, civil rights and social justice, civil liberties, and the future of the judiciary. But the president-elect’s rhetoric about nuclear weapons serve as a painful reminder that there’s an even more alarming danger, which Trump appears eager to make worse.

It’s all a bit terrifying, actually. For decades, presidents of both parties recognized the seriousness of the nuclear threat and the need for clear and calm positions from leading U.S. officials. Trump, however, wants to “expand its nuclear capability” – a phrase the transition office has not explained – as part of a newly reinitiated “arms race” in which we’ll “outmatch them.”

The uncertainty, here and around the world, about what Trump means by “expand” and “them,” all while the incoming president contradicts his own top aides, makes an alarming situation considerably worse. Indeed, it’s not at all clear who Trump sees as our competitor in his newly imagined “race” – because it’s certainly not Russia, led by Team Trump’s closest international pal, Vladimir Putin.

What’s more, as we discussed last week, there’s a pattern of reckless incompetence on this issue. In one of the GOP primary debates, Trump seemed baffled by a simple question about the nuclear triad. In one of the general election debates, Trump was asked about nuclear first-use policy, and delivered two completely contradictory answers over the course of a few seconds.

This is the same Republican who, over the course of his campaign, suggested more countries – specifically South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia – should develop nuclear-weapons programs for their own national security interests.

Around the same time, Trump seemed genuinely confused by the meaning of the word “proliferation.”

Now, however, he’s president-elect and prepared to start an international arms race. What could possibly go wrong?

Postscript: Over the holiday weekend, Trump complained that an NBC News report took his bizarre rhetoric out of context. By all appearances, the president-elect wasn’t telling the truth.

Donald Trump, Nuclear and Nuclear Policy

Contradicting his own aides, Trump welcomes nuclear 'arms race'