On Wednesday, NBC News reported that President Trump sought a dramatic increase in the number of nuclear weapons in the United States’ arsenal. It’s a position that runs contrary to recent presidential administrations, during which international treaties were developed with the aim of reducing nuclear weapon stockpiles around the world. But a request to boost our nuclear capabilities fits squarely with Trump’s understanding of power.
There’s an anonymous quote in Dexter Filkins’s recent overview of Rex Tillerson’s State Department that does a lot to explain this idea.
Tillerson has been at odds with Trump on a number of issues, with neither man going to great lengths to hide those differences. But in one way Tillerson is adhering strictly to what Trump wants to see from the diplomatic arm of his administration. Tillerson has been slow to fill vacant staff positions within the department; there are currently 37 Senate-confirmable positions open, nine months into the administration. Other lower-profile positions are also empty, intentionally, as Tillerson seeks to shrink the overall size (and cost) of the organization he runs.
That’s the context for this section of Filkins’s article.
As the Trump Administration pushed for cuts in diplomacy, it was proposing to increase defense spending by fifty-four billion dollars—roughly equal to the entire budget of the State Department. The choice seems to reflect a sense that force is more valuable than diplomacy in international affairs, and that other countries, even allies, respond better to threats than to persuasion. “All of our tools right now are military,” a former senior official in the Obama Administration told me. “When all of your tools are military, those are the tools you reach for.”
This, in a nutshell, is Trump’s theory of presidential power.
Trump came to the job from the private sector, from spending decades as the sole authority over his own company. He revealed his sense of what the job of president entailed when he said during the Republican convention last year that “I alone can fix” the problems the country faces. He never had a distinct strategy for building consensus on Capitol Hill and has, instead, pushed the boundaries of unilateral executive orders to enact his will. The president isn’t a CEO, but there are ways in which the president can act like a CEO, and Trump has embraced those tools.
Nowhere is that power more immediate than in the president’s role as civilian commander of the armed forces. As president, Trump calls the shots for the nation’s soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen. He can’t launch a war without congressional authority but, as recent presidents have shown, he has a lot of leeway to take military action without a formal declaration of war. This is the closest Trump will get to CEO power in the White House — and it’s a power for which he has an ingrained respect.
Trump never served himself, avoiding the Vietnam War draft by deferment while he was in college and later for bone spurs in his heels, a reason that has been met with scrutiny. He instead suggested that his time at the New York Military Academy — a boarding school north of New York City — offered him an equivalent experience.
“I felt that I was in the military in the true sense because I dealt with those people” at the academy, he told Michael D’Antonio, the author of a biography of the president. (The author, the New York Times writes in its story about the comment, “seemed taken aback by this.”)
Trump’s reverence for military leaders is reflected in his Cabinet. His defense secretary is a former general (having received a waiver from Congress to serve in that position). His chief of staff and national security advisers are, as well. So was his first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
That reverence is also reflected in Trump’s regular photo ops with military members and repeated desire to have a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Trump understands the brute force of military power. It’s less clear that he has an appreciation for the nuances of what the State Department does.
On the campaign trail, the question of Trump’s ability to launch nuclear strikes as president was a common refrain among supporters of his primary opponents and of Hillary Clinton. Trump was reported to have asked an adviser during the campaign why the United States doesn’t use its nuclear weapons, given that it has them. (There are good reasons.) He embraced the idea that some proliferation was acceptable by other countries and, during the transition, got into a public feud with Russia in which he implied that he would embark on a new nuclear arms race.
If Trump drifts toward the raw power of the military over more nuanced ways in which he can leverage the United States’ authority, there’s no military more raw or more powerful than a nuclear weapon. The country’s reduced-but-still-significant nuclear weapons could obliterate any number of countries in a near-instant, including, as Trump threatened from the lectern at the United Nations, North Korea.
That’s a tangible expression of power, and it’s not subject to veto. Trump can launch a nuclear strike without any intervention, likely becoming a global pariah but, certainly, demonstrating the power of the United States and its president.
So we get to Trump in that meeting asking why the arsenal can’t be substantially larger instead of being winnowed into nothing. Reducing the number of nuclear weapons is, when extrapolated outward, a reduction of the central source of power Trump seems to understand.
This was the meeting after which Tillerson reportedly referred to Trump as a “f—-ing moron.”