Donald Trump spoke briefly with the press yesterday from the Oval Office, sitting alongside Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, but managed to cover some interesting ground. The American president made headlines, for example, by announcing he’d called to congratulate Russia’s Vladimir Putin on his recent election.
But there was something else about Trump’s unscripted comments that stood out for me as, well, a little confusing. From the official White House transcript:
“I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory – his electoral victory. The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not-too-distant future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race. As you know, he made a statement that being in an arms race is not a great thing. That was right after the election – one of the first statements he made.
“And we are spending $700 billion this year on our military, and a lot of it is that we are going to remain stronger than any other nation in the world by far.
“We had a very good call, and I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have.”
To know anything about Trump’s rhetorical style is to understand that the president often likes to use phrases he doesn’t fully understand. I’m convinced, for example, that he has no idea what a “witch hunt” is. The president also talks about “clean coal,” without knowing what that means. I don’t think he knows what a “blind trust” is, either.
And now it’s probably worth taking a closer look at what an “arms race” is – or at least what Trump thinks it is.
Trump began by saying he intends to have a conversation with Vladimir Putin about the arms race. That’s not generally the way in which an American president would phrase the issue, but fine.
Moments later, however, Trump seemed to switch gears, bragging about increased U.S. military spending and how pleased he is with the new investments.
And then he switched back, saying the arms race “is getting out of control,” only to switch once more seconds later, saying, “[W]e will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have” – which tends to be the kind of rhetoric that encourages an arms race.
So I suppose my questions for the White House are as follows:
1. What does the president think an “arms race” is?
2. Does he think an arms race is good or bad?
3. Does he want to see an arms race escalate or deescalate?
Let’s also note that Trump attended a Pentagon briefing last summer and was shown a slide that showed the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile over the past seven decades. Trump saw the highest point on the chart – a half-century ago, the American stockpile was at 32,000 – and told his team “he wanted the U.S. to have that many now.”
That, of course, was absurd, and officials in the room had to explain there are “legal and practical impediments” to such a move. NBC News reported at the time, “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.”
Do you get the sense the president’s understanding of the arms race hasn’t become any more sophisticated in the months since?