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Trump wanted vast increase to U.S. nuclear arsenal

Donald Trump's pattern of reckless incompetence on nuclear issues has been ongoing for quite a while. At a recent Pentagon meeting, it got much worse.
Image: US Secretary of State Tillerson rebukes resignation reports
epa06244285 (FILE) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) looks at US President Donald J. Trump (R) during a ceremony to commemorate the September 11,...

On July 20, Donald Trump attended a meeting at the Pentagon with members of his national security team and Cabinet officials. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on hand, and after the president left the room, the nation's chief diplomat reportedly called Trump a "moron" -- or more specifically, a "f***ing moron."

It's been unclear, though, exactly what transpired during that meeting. NBC News, which broke the "moron" story last week, moved the ball forward today.

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.

There were reportedly several "tense exchanges" at the July 20 meeting, and it's not clear if the comments on nuclear weapons directly led to TIllerson's Trump criticisms.

Nevertheless, according to the account, the president saw 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."

Officials in the room then had to explain there are "legal and practical impediments" to such a move, which isn't at all necessary anyway. The NBC report added, "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."

It's tempting to explore what the point of such a build-up would be -- it would serve no substantive purpose -- but I think we can safely guess that the president wasn't thinking along these lines. Rather, Trump saw a higher number, and probably assumed that more is better and fewer is worse. Other presidents had more, so he should have more.

Making matters even worse is Trump's record of confusion on the subject itself. Around Christmas last year, for example, the Republican declared, apropos of nothing, that United States "must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” It's never been clear exactly what that meant, though NBC News' report on the July 20 meeting casts the quote in a new light.

What's more, as we discussed at the time, his pattern of reckless incompetence on this issue is unnervingly long. In one of the GOP 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.”

If we weren't talking about the world's most powerful office and the world's most dangerous weapon, Trump's ridiculousness on the issue wouldn't be quite so scary.