WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday reversed his position on the need for a massive buildup of the American nuclear weapons arsenal, calling such a move “unnecessary” after a report emerged alleging he told his team he wanted just that.
Trump dismissed as “fake news” a NBC News report that he signaled in late July to senior national security officials his desire for a major increase in the number of American nuclear weapons.
That report, citing multiple officials who were in the room for the briefing in question, describes Trump making his desires known after being shown a slide depicting the reduction in U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s.
The United States had about 32,000 nuclear warheads then and has drawn down to around 4,000 warheads now.
Trump, NBC reported, told his national security team he wanted to return to 1960s levels — an eightfold increase that would violate numerous treaties and come with a massive price tag that would blow up the annual Pentagon and federal budgets.
Trump’s first attack on the report and the network came Wednesday morning on Twitter, with him threatening to target NBC’s “License.” That was taken by some as his latest attack on the First Amendment, and he again allowed his frustration with the media to show later in the day.
“It is frankly disgusting the press is able to write whatever it wants to write,” he said, referring to the NBC News report.
At the start of an otherwise set of closed-door meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he told reporters a buildup would be “totally unnecessary.”
He contended he favors modernizing the 4,000 or so now in the stockpile. Those, he said, he wants in “tiptop shape,” according to a pool report.
“I want them in perfect shape,” the commander in chief said of existing U.S. nuclear weapons.
But that amounts to a policy flip-flop for a former candidate who burned up the campaign trail with bombastic rhetoric such as calling for a nuclear “arms race.”
“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump posted to Twitter on Dec. 22, 2016.
The next day, he bucked his aides’ dismissive spin: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,” Trump allegedly told MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski over the phone.
Reporters’ questions about Trump’s stance on the nuclear partially arsenal overshadowed the main topic of his meetings with Trudeau: trade and the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has ripped open NAFTA, aiming to negotiate with Canadian and Mexican officials what he promises will be better terms for America.
“We are discussing many things, including NAFTA,” Trump said, seated beside Trudeau in the Oval Office.
The closed-door talks between the U.S. and Canadian leaders was held as their teams are trying, at Trump’s behest, to negotiate a deal the president just a few weeks ago called “one of the worst trade deals ever made.”
The U.S. president ran on a nationalist platform, and “America First” was the theme of his inauguration speech and that philosophy has guided much of his first nine months as America’s chief executive. Trump believes trade deals among the United States and multiple other countries allow those nations to take advantage of America; he often simplifies his stance to say he wants to get the country a “better deal.”
The White House session with Trudeau came a day after Trump told Forbes magazine the U.S. may need to leave NAFTA in order to get a better trade deal. The U.S. stance puts Canada, Mexico, business groups on edge.
Trudeau met earlier in the day with a key House committee, a rare move by a foreign head of state that shows just how high the stakes are for the ongoing NAFTA talks.
Sporting a smile, the Canadian leader emerged from a closed-door roundtable-style session with House Ways and Means Republicans and Democrats ended with audible applause. Trudeau exited with a smile, saying “It went very well.” Several committee members called the discussion on NAFTA useful but not decisive.
Another sign of what’s at stake came from the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“An army of NAFTA supporters” will hit Capitol Hill Wednesday as the fourth round of talks on the 1994 trade pact start, Chamber CEO Thomas Donohue said in Mexico City. Donohue’s members worry about U.S. proposals to end arbitration dispute process for businesses, set automatic expiration date for NAFTA.