Why we should not be surprised Trump could do a deal over nuclear weapons with North Korea

“I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially” Donald Trump, interview, 16 January 2017.

David Lowry
28 March 2018

German protest against nuclear weapons and the escalation of tensions between US and North Korea, organized by ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) Berlin, November 18, 2017. NurPhoto/Associated Press. All rights reserved. The world was astonished by the news that President Trump is due to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to discuss nuclear disarmament and other security issues on the Korean peninsula.

But should the world have been so surprised ? On 15 December 2015 Donald Trump said “The biggest problem we have is nuclear – nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That's in my opinion that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.”

Just before Christmas in 2016, he tweeted, as President–elect: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” The president-elect’s Twitter comments came the same day that Vladimir Putin said Russia needed to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces. Later Trump spokesman Jason Miller issued a statement to NBC News which did not add much clarity, referring “to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it, particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes”, as The Washington Post reported on 23 December 2016.

His tweet seemed to signal a break with decades of presidential actions to reduce the nuclear arsenal.

As he cranked up his campaign for the United States Presidency, Donald Trump had uttered many things that left not just the US electorate but the wider world gasping in near disbelief. At the end of March 2016 he came up with one of his biggest shock statements, stressing to popular supermarket checkout PEOPLE magazine his caution at pushing the nuclear button should he be elected to the White House. “That would be such a last resort … “Nobody is going to mess with us. But I would be very, very slow on the draw.”

"The depth and gravity of the responsibility of the office seem to elude Trump so far," Mark Pfeifle, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush told PEOPLE. "No one knows if reading the [CIA's daily terror-threat briefing] would sober him." As the Huffington Post headlined the story: ‘President’ Donald Trump Would Only Turn To Nuclear Annihilation As A ‘Last Resort'; ‘I would be very, very slow on the draw.’”

Should the world breathe a sigh of collective relief that he is not trigger happy?

Unbounded power

So what do we know about Trump’s thinking on nuclear weapons? Trump’s former Republican rival for the Presidency, Marco Rubio, said on the Presidential campaign trail that the US shouldn’t hand over "the nuclear codes of the United States to an erratic individual."

As with his predecessors, Trump’s power over the life and death of entire nations is practically unbounded. Today, the nuclear deluge he could command would consist of thousands of weapons, each 10 or 20 times more deadly than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nearly 2,000 US strategic nuclear weapons aimed primarily at Russia and China (at a ratio of roughly 2 to 1), with additional dozens aimed at each of several other nations – North Korea, Iran and Syria – were at President Trump’s disposal from his first minutes in office.

For his part, on 23 November 2015 Trump opined: “I would be somebody that would be amazingly calm under pressure.”

For those looking for any proof of this, an article published in Slate, the US news web site, – Trump’s Nuclear Experience: in 1987, he set out to solve the world’s biggest problem – provides a remarkable insight.

Written by senior Slate writer, Ron Rosenbaum,  author of The Shakespeare Wars, Explaining Hitler and How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III, the article resurrects an interview originally given to the author nearly three decades ago for the now defunct magazine, Manhattan Inc., and held in Trump’s glitzy office, featuring a golden mirrored ceiling – in his eponymous New York HQ, Trump Tower.

Rosenbaum recalls:  

“Trump is not new to nuclear matters. He has been thinking about how he’d handle nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation for more than a quarter-century, at least since 1987, when he claimed to me that he was “dealing at a very high level” with people in the White House (that would have been the Reagan White House) on doomsday questions.

It seemed like a joke, when I first heard of it back then. But at the very peak of the Cold War, when the US and the then Soviet Union had an estimated 25,000 nukes to target at each other, thousands of them on hair-trigger alert (no Trump jokes about “hair trigger” please), Donald Trump announced that he had the know-how to solve the world’s nuclear problems.”

Rosenbaum explained the context of his interview, reminiscing that his “gig” was to take the loudest, glitziest luminaries of the loudest, glitziest era of Manhattan, the power brokers and power lunchers, out to lunch and turn on a tape recorder, to profile their self-importance. Not just the rich and famous of biz, but politicos like Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo.

Trump duly revealed that he had grander ambitions than being a very successful international business guru. Perhaps the grandest, Rosenbaum records, was “saving the world.” Before lunch he confided that he was talking to “people in Washington,” even “the White House”; he was on the verge of breaking through. Even then he wanted to be viewed as something more than a glam real estate speculator, someone of substance politically.

Even then, nearly three decades ago, Trump demonstrated Trumpian impatience with “defense intellectuals,” exemplified in his contempt for then-fashionable nuclear-deterrence theories like “dense pack,” a plan to group US nuclear silos so close together that attacking missiles would destroy each other by means of “fratricide” – crashing into each other over the desolate Great Plains.

Trump thought he saw how dense this plan was. He knew about the dangerous reality of a “hair trigger” nuclear “posture.” He said he had an uncle who was a nuclear scientist who made him aware of the all-too-easy proliferation of nuclear weapons. He had read Deadly Gambits, the sagacious history of the START nuclear reduction talks penned by nuclear negotiator, Strobe Talbott, a former Time magazine senior reporter, now President of the prestigious Brookings Institution think tank in Washington DC.

Trump wanted to begin a crusade to find a way to halt a national security policy based on nuclear mutually assured destruction (MAD), “before a wild-card nuke deals death to millions.”

Trump believed he had some real personal insight into the nuclear nexus, telling Rosembaum:

“My uncle who just passed away was a great scientist. He was a professor at MIT. Dr. John Trump. In fact, together with Dr. Van de Graaff they did the Van de Graaff generator. He was the earliest pioneer in radiation therapy for cancer. He spent his whole life fighting cancer and he ended up dying of it.”


“He told me something a few years ago,” Trump recalled. “ He told me, ‘You don’t realize how simple nuclear technology is becoming.’ That’s scary. He said it used to be that only a few brains in the world understood it and now you have a situation where thousands and thousands of brains can easily understand it, and it’s becoming easier, and someday it’ll be like making a bomb in the basement of your house. And that’s a very frightening statement coming from a man who’s totally versed in it.”

Rosenbaum opined: “if Trump gets his way with this, the way he does with other deals, it’s not inconceivable that history will look back on the Trump Plan’s acceptance as one of the few hopeful developments in the course of a miserable century.”

Trump foresaw the situation when “hair-trigger” heads of state will have their hands on multiple nuclear triggers. And, Rosenbaum observed, it drove him crazy that nobody in the White House sensed the danger.

But Trump has now put himself in a position to do something about it himself with his unlikely atomic summit with the little ‘Rocket Man’.

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