What exactly was Donald Trump trying to say about nuclear weapons Monday night?

A Valiant Attempt at Deciphering Trump’s Nuclear Weapons Answer From Monday Night

A Valiant Attempt at Deciphering Trump’s Nuclear Weapons Answer From Monday Night

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Sept. 27 2016 11:49 AM

A Valiant Attempt at Deciphering Trump’s Nuclear Weapons Answer From Monday Night

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A U.S. B-52 Stratofortress is escorted by a South Korean F-15K fighter jet as it flies over the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, on Jan. 10.

Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

I suspect that moderator Lester Holt was taking his cues from MSNBC contributor Hugh Hewitt last night when he asked Donald Trump about his views on nuclear deterrence. As my colleague Jim Newell wrote in his debate preview, the conservative talk show host had a notable victory in knocking Trump out of his comfort zone last December when he asked him about upgrading “the nuclear triad”—referring to land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems. Trump’s response revealed that he had clearly never heard the term before. (Hewitt is supporting him anyway.) And he didn’t display much more knowledge Monday night.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs. 

“On nuclear weapons, President Obama reportedly considered changing the nation's longstanding policy on first use,” Holt said to Trump last night, referring to reports that Obama was considering declaring that the U.S. would never use nuclear unless attacked by them first, which he appears to now be backing down from. “Do you support the current policy?”

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Here was the radioactive gobbledygook Trump came back with:

Well, I have to say that, you know, for what Secretary Clinton was saying about nuclear with Russia, she's very cavalier in the way she talks about various countries. But Russia has been expanding their—they have a much newer capability than we do. We have not been updating from the new standpoint.
I looked the other night. I was seeing B-52s, they're old enough that your father, your grandfather could be flying them. We are not—we are not keeping up with other countries. I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike.
I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it's over. At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can't take anything off the table.
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As Fred Kaplan noted, Trump once again does not appear to have ever heard the term he was being asked about. In fact, you could generously say that he was attempting to answer Hewitt’s question nine months later, since the B-52 is, in fact, part of the nuclear triad (which is being upgraded by the way).

Anyway, it’s really, really hard to fact-check Trump’s answer; the word pile makes no sense. But: It’s wrong to say that the U.S. is not updating its nuclear arsenal. Much to the frustration of the anti-nuclear activists who cheered Obama’s famous 2009 Prague speech, in which he laid out his goal of a nuclear-free world, the U.S. is now set to spend about $1 trillion on a nuclear overhaul over the next three decades. It’s also wrong to suggest that Russia is falling behind the U.S. on nuclear capabilities, though it is spending heavily in an effort to catch up with America’s spending spree.

But there’s more to parse here. Trump says he “would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it,” by which we can only assume that Trump, too, is the sort of hippie peacenik who visualizes a world without nuclear weapons, even if he opposes basically every measure that would make this more likely. He then said, “but I would certainly not do first strike” by which he either:

  1. Meant that he wouldn’t do “no-first-use,” which doesn’t seem likely because Trump probably doesn’t know what that is.
  2. Meant that he would not actually use nuclear weapons first, which contradicts previous things that he has said.
  3. Or just assumed from Holt’s question that first-use/first-strike is a thing that Obama is for, so he must be against it.

Holt’s question was, in some sense, a classic gotcha designed to expose Trump’s ignorance. Most of the viewing public probably didn’t know about the first use debate either. But the specific choice of topic was actually pretty perceptive, given that our current system of keeping the most destructive arsenal in the history of humankind on a hair trigger relies an awful lot on the good judgment of one person. The Trump candidacy is, itself, the best argument for taking first-use off the table.