In just seven weeks, a man known for being ill-tempered, thin-skinned, narcissistic, and erratic will take control of the US nuclear arsenal. Donald Trump will have the authority and power to launch any combination of the country's 4,500 nuclear weapons. At any time and for any reason he deems fit, Trump could destroy a nation and, through miscalculation, the world.
During the presidential campaign, he uttered several troubling statements about nuclear arms. At a Republican primary debate, he botched a question about the nuclear triad—America's system of sea-, air-, and land-based nuclear weapons—suggesting he did not understand the most basic information about the structure of the US nuclear command. (He babbled, "For me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.") At other points in the campaign, Trump noted he would support allowing Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia to obtain nuclear weapons and indicated he would be open to using such weapons against ISIS and in other conflicts.
What makes Trump's loose talk—and ignorance—about nuclear weapons particularly worrisome is that in the past, he has taken a fatalistic approach toward the notion of nuclear war. He has spoken as if he believed such a conflagration was almost inevitable. And now he is about to become one of the few humans on the planet who can decide the fate of the Earth.
Trump's fatalism regarding nuclear war goes back decades. During a 1990 interview with Playboy, he was asked about running for president (yes, even then) and to describe what "would be some of President Trump's longer-term views of the future." Trump replied, "I think of the future, but I refuse to paint it. Anything can happen. But I often think of nuclear war."
The interviewer, Glenn Plaskin, seemed surprise. "Nuclear war?" he asked. Trump explained:
I've always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it's a very important element in my thought process. It's the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody's focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It's a little like sickness. People don't believe they're going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people's believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
Plaskin asked, "Does any of that fuzzy thinking exist around the Trump office?" The mogul replied:
On a much lower level, I would never hire anybody who thinks that way, because he has absolutely no common sense. He's living in a world of make-believe. It's like thinking the Titanic can't sink. Too many countries have nuclear weapons; nobody knows where they're all pointed, what button it takes to launch them.
The bomb Harry Truman dropped on Hiroshima was a toy next to today's. We have thousands of weapons pointed at us and nobody even knows if they're going to go in the right direction. They've never really been tested. These jerks in charge don't know how to paint a wall, and we're relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow. What happens if they don't go there? What happens if our computer systems aren't working? Nobody knows if this equipment works, and I've seen numerous reports lately stating that the probability is they don't work. It's a total mess.
So Trump fretted about both the prospect of nuclear war and nuclear weapons not functioning properly. But he did seem to think that a cataclysm was likely at some point.
Five years later, Trump expressed a similar sentiment in a filmed interview aired this week on MSNBC. He was asked where he saw himself in five years. He answered, "In five years from now, who knows? Maybe the bombs drop from heaven, who knows? This is a sick world, we're dealing here with lots of sickos. And you have the nuclear and you have the this and you have the that."
Did he really worry about that? Trump continued:
Oh absolutely. I mean, I think it's sick human nature. If Hitler had the bomb, you don't think he would have used it? He would have put the bomb right in the middle of Fifth Avenue. He would have used Trump tower, 57th and Fifth. Boom. I mean, you have people that are sick and they are now having nuclear arsenals, and I think it's one of the greatest problems of the world…So it's always tough to say—I mean I like to project for the future but really live very much for the present. And I like to learn from the past, but it's very very fragile, life is so fragile.
Once more, Trump appeared to believe nuclear annihilation was coming one day. Maybe soon.
In The America We Deserve, a book Trump published in early 2000 when he was considering running for president on the Reform Party ticket, he noted that the threat of nuclear terrorism was profound:
My uncle John Trump was an MIT professor and a brilliant man. He had a clear and compelling view of the future, including a strong belief that one day the United States might be subjected to a terrorist strike that would turn Manhattan into Hiroshima II. I always respected Uncle John, but sometimes found myself wondering if maybe he wasn't exaggerating just a bit.
Today we know that John Trump knew exactly what he was talking about.
So what are we doing about this threat? Are we getting tough with people who would wipe us out in a second? Hell no.
In this ghost-written book, Trump came across as concerned, but he did not state that nuclear war was inevitable. After all, he was mulling a presidential bid, and the book was designed to demonstrate that he could be a strong leader and protect the United States.
Yet in a 2004 interview—again with Playboy—Trump returned to expressing his fatalism. When he was asked by interviewer David Hochman why he was such a self-promoter, he responded:
Because if you don't, probably nobody else will. Whether I'm building the best buildings in Chicago, New York, California or wherever I happen to be building, I think I get credit for being a great promoter. Actually, what I am is a great builder. I build great things and become successful, and everybody talks about them. I'd like to be remembered as somebody with a high standard of taste who got the job done and also put lots of people to work, made lots of money for the poor and fed a lot of families.
But then came this question: "Do you think Trump Tower and your other buildings will bear your name a hundred years from now?" Trump's reply was chilling:
No, I don't think so…I don't think any building will be here—and unless we have some very smart people ruling it, the world will not be the same place in a hundred years. The weapons are too powerful, too strong. Access to the weapons is getting too easy, so I think the landscape we're looking at will not be the same unless we get smart people in office quickly.
The interviewer responded, "That's frightening." And Trump said, "You don't agree?"
Hochman remarked, "It's just surprising coming from you. Your whole world is bricks and mortar." Trump went on:
I had an uncle who was a great professor and a brilliant man—Dr. John Trump, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His whole life was devoted to the study and eradication of cancer, and sadly, he died of cancer. But he was a brilliant scientist, and he would tell me weapons are getting so powerful today that humanity is in tremendous trouble. This was 25 years ago, but he was right. The world is rocky, and some terrible things are going to happen. That's why I lead the life I do. I enjoy it. I know life is fragile, and if the world looks like this a hundred years from now, we'll either be very lucky or have found unbelievably good leaders somewhere down the line.
That was 12 years ago. Trump was conveying a dark message about the future. He did note there was hope—but only if smart leaders emerged. As the world knows, Trump does think of himself as a highly intelligent person. During the Republican primary he said he was his own foreign policy consultant because he had "a very good brain." And he did claim in a campaign interview last March that nuclear policy was a priority for him, saying, "It's a very scary nuclear world. Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation."
Yet can a man who has said he views nuclear war as almost unavoidable but who couldn't be bothered to learn the fundamentals of nuclear policy be the "good leader" who can steer humanity past the greatest of all threats? Trump's campaign comments about nuclear weapons and the possibility of using them have not been reassuring. His previous remarks suggesting he believed nuclear war was all but inescapable are the stuff of nightmares.