NBC News reported on Wednesday that Donald Trump called for the ten-fold augmentation of America’s nuclear arsenal at a meeting in a secure room in the Pentagon in July. Contrary to the president’s protestations and a denial by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the report is compelling and thoroughly sourced. That’s the problem.
According to NBC’s report, to which five reporters contributed and which was sourced to “three officials who were in the room,” Trump wants more nuclear warheads. Trump was confronted with a graphic that demonstrated how the United States nuclear warhead stockpile had declined since 1967—when, at its height, the U.S. had more than 32,000 nuclear warheads. Today, by contrast, the U.S. has only 7,000 weapons, approximately 4,000 of which are deployable. The president then reportedly “indicated” he wanted to see a much bigger stockpile.
First, it must be noted that the president’s confusion about the American nuclear arsenal a full seven months into his presidency reveals a disturbing lack of curiosity. It’s reasonable to expect that a man who showed total ignorance of the “nuclear triad” during the primaries would educate himself on the subject as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But if that’s the objection, it’s unreasonable to be irritated when the president does try to educate himself on American nuclear forces and tactics. The answer he likely received was that a large stockpile is no longer necessary due to increased targeting accuracy and the end of the arms race. In fact, if Trump had demanded an augmented arsenal (NBC News only claimed that he “expressed a desire” to see that outcome), it would have been a perfectly justified request—albeit one that requires Congressional authorization.
Even President Barack Obama reluctantly consented to a nuclear modernization effort, despite seven years of paying fealty to the deluded fantasy of total global nuclear disarmament. And modernization is desperately needed. The newest nuclear warheads in America’s arsenal are 30 years old. Life extension programs can extend the shelf-life of these weapons only so much, and the facilities responsible for nuclear warhead maintenance—Pantex in Texas and Y12 in Tennessee—are crumbling. In the first weeks of the Trump administration, a Pentagon panel urged Trump to develop new, low-yield tactical nuclear weapons to provide a “tailored nuclear option for limited use.” Others have suggested that the U.S. would be better served by having a nuclear force capable of penetrating bunkers to deter, say, a rational rogue regime convinced it could survive a limited, theater-wide nuclear exchange. That’s hardly a theoretical scenario.
But that leads to the most important element of the NBC News story, which is its subtext. This meeting occurred in a conference room in the Pentagon dubbed “the Tank.” It’s intimate, secure, and designed to ensure those in it can discuss urgent matters of national security in a confidential setting. In fact, the meeting was moved to that space because, according to NBC, an earlier discussion about Afghanistan in the White House situation room was allegedly so “unproductive” Trump’s advisors thought a smaller setting would help focus the conversation by limiting it to a narrow, confidential bunch. That confidentiality has been shattered.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but the president should be confident in the integrity of the rooms in which he is having conversations relevant to national security. If he thinks those spaces are compromised, he will not be as forthcoming. Perhaps he will tell his generals and advisors one thing in that space and act differently outside of it. Indeed, maybe Trump will simply keep his own counsel. The anti-Trump “Resistance” is so bound up in the idea that it is virtuous to undermine this president in any way possible that it cannot see how actions like these will make him more insular and less prone to seek the guidance of his advisors—outcomes Trump’s opponents profess to fear.
Trump has declared the NBC News story “fake news.” His Defense Secretary has argued that Trump “called for” a massive increase in America’s nuclear stockpile, which was not what was reported. It’s clear the administration is reacting to this story negatively. For now, that reaction is focused on the press. But it won’t be long before the hunt for the leakers begins. For the sake of the country, we should hope they are found. This kind of “Resistance” makes us all less safe.