Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens to his mobile phone during a lunch stop, Feb. 18, 2016, in North Charleston, S.C.
Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

New questions surround Trump’s conversation with Putin

Updated
As president-elect, Donald Trump spoke to a variety of international leaders, and in a few too many instances, the calls did not go well. Obama administration officials offered to help prepare the Republican, and offer guidance on avoiding potential pitfalls, but Trump and his team decided to wing it – and the consequences weren’t pretty.

As president, Trump has spoken to many more officials from around the world, and the calls appear to be getting worse. The amateur leader’s recent call with the president of Mexico was a disaster. His chat with the Australian prime minister was worse. Politico reported yesterday that Trump “spent much of a recent phone call with French President Francois Hollande veering off into rants about the U.S. getting shaken down by other countries … creating an awkward interaction with a critical U.S. ally.”

And then, of course, there’s Russia. This Reuters report is getting a lot of attention today, and for good reason.
In his first call as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump denounced a treaty that caps U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads as a bad deal for the United States, according to two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official with knowledge of the call.

When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty, known as New START, Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was, these sources said.

Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration, saying that New START favored Russia. Trump also talked about his own popularity, the sources said.
As is always the case with stories like these, the sourcing matters, and we don’t know for sure who Reuters spoke to. The report hasn’t been independently verified by NBC News or MSNBC.

But the reporting is also very easy to believe.

Before Election Day, Trump pretended to know what the New START policy was, but failed. He forgot its name – Trump was convinced it was called the “Start-Up” treaty – and struggled to discuss the substance of the agreement at the most basic level.

But Trump knows President Obama negotiated the treaty, which leads the Republican to assume it was a bad deal for the United States.

And while it would be annoying if the new president adopted some kind of blanket “I’ll be the opposite of Obama” posture, the Reuters report points in a more alarming direction. Consider this series of details:

1. Trump wasn’t sure what the nuclear agreement with Russia was.
2. Trump was sure he didn’t like the nuclear agreement with Russia.
3. Trump felt comfortable enough to start describing details of the agreement, which he got wrong.

When a politician does this during a debate or press conference, the impact is embarrassing, but most voters generally don’t care. But when a president is talking to a foreign head of state – a foe of the United States – about nuclear weapons, and his efforts to pretend to know what he’s talking about fail miserably, it’s a more serious problem.

When it happens after that same president welcomes an “arms race,” it’s a more terrifying problem.

This is an unnervingly familiar situation, as regular readers may recall. In one of his primary debates, for example, 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.”

During the transition, he turned to Twitter to declare his intention to “expand” the nation’s “nuclear capability,” but no one knew what that meant, and no one from Trump World has been able to explain it.

What we’re left with is a president whose approach to nuclear weapons has long been a cringe-worthy mess, and if this reporting from Reuters is correct, it’s possible Trump’s ignorance is somehow getting worse, not better.


Donald Trump, Nuclear, Russia and Vladimir Putin

New questions surround Trump's conversation with Putin

Updated