“As with just about every Trump tweet, deciphering its actual meaning and intent can be a difficult task,” said Kingston Reif, of the Arms Control Association.
This difficult task is upon us because on Thursday morning, Donald Trump tweeted this:
What precisely he meant by that is unclear.
“We’re treating him like he’s a normal human being whose utterances have symbolic meaning, but I don’t know,” said Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “I don’t know that this is any particular window into his policy or future.”
Ordinarily, when future presidents speak about nuclear weapons, they do so very, very carefully. (Arms that have the potential to end the world have a way of inducing that kind of caution.) What’s more, because the Bombs are never supposed to be used, the signalling around them—how they’re positioned, how they’re tested, and how they’re discussed—becomes of paramount importance.
This time? Eh, maybe not so much.
Lewis added that in some ways, Trump’s tweet sounds comparable to the typical Republican line on nuclear weapons: that as long as we live in a dangerous world, we need to maintain a robust nuclear capability, rather than downgrading it.
“‘Expand our capabilities?’” Lewis added. “Maybe that means more weapons, maybe that just means the capabilities are better. Policymaking by Twitter is a pretty freaking weird endeavor.”
Trump is not a nuclear weapon wonk. He struggled mightily to answer a question about the nuclear triad in a Republican primary debate last December.
After saying he thought nuclear proliferation was the “biggest problem we have today,” moderator Hugh Hewitt asked him what his priority would be for upgrading American nuclear capabilities.
“I think to me, nuclear, is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” Trump answered somberly.
Trump has also said he does not think he will need to drop any nuclear bombs as president.
“I will have a military that’s so strong and powerful, and so respected, we’re not gonna have to nuke anybody,” he told GQ in an interview published on Nov. 23, 2015.
The questioner followed up by asking if Trump would “get rid of the weapons.”
“No, no, we wouldn’t get rid of the weapons,” Trump replied. “Because you have so many people out there. But I would be somebody that would be amazingly calm under pressure.”
He made a similar point on the Today show on April 28 of this year.
“It’s a horror to use nuclear weapons. The power of weaponry today is the single greatest problem that our world has,” he said on the show. “I will be the last to use it. I will not be a happy trigger like some people might be. I will be the last, but I will never ever rule it out.”
Trump’s promise to not be “a happy trigger,” however, may not be enough to prevent nuke-related problems. Reif noted that most American presidents don’t bring up our nuclear arsenal in casual conversation (much the less Twitter) because it can be perceived as saber-rattling.
Most commanders-in-chief haven’t made a point of “constantly reminding other countries that we have a devastating nuclear arsenal and you ought to remember that fact,” Reif said.
Trump’s approach, based on today’s tweet, may be different. And if he actually follows through on the changes he’s opaquely hinted at—for instance, by increasing the number of nuclear weapons in our possession or expanding our capabilities to use them—that could undermine his own stated support of nonproliferation.
“It would likely worsen global nuclear weapons competition and the risk of conflict,” Reif said.
Of course, Trump will have plenty of advisors weighing in on his nuclear plans. Among the foremost will be Rick Perry, who he has nominated to head the Department of Energy. During Perry’s ill-fated 2012 presidential bid, he said he wanted to eliminate that department. At the time, he didn’t highlight that one of the agency’s top responsibilities was maintaining the nuclear stockpile.
Over the coming weeks and months, the Trump administration will fill a host of roles related to nuclear weapons. There’s the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Deputy Secretary of Energy, and the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. It isn’t yet clear who will take these roles under Trump. And they could all have a sizable impact on how he thinks about nuclear weapons, according to Lewis.
But for now, here’s the thing: We don’t know. When it comes to Donald Trump’s plans for America’s thousands of nuclear weapons—like many of his policies—we will have to wait and see.