Why We Should Not Be Surprised Trump Could Do a Deal Over Nuclear Weapons with North Korea

Yves here. Bear in mind that the much ballyhooed danger of Trump having his finger on the nuclear button is overstated. As this article explains, while the system is set up to give the President the power to authorize a nuclear strike in response to an attack, he can’t go willy nilly and set nukes a-flying just because it struck him as a good idea that day.

Having said that, I’m not sure I buy the premise of this piece, since one of Trump’s salient characteristics is to have no enduring principles. But the observations are worth throwing into the mix.

By David Lowry, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Mass. Originally published at openDemocracy

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

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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  1. Larry

    I believe Trump could negotiate a deal. But I also believe he could blow up the whole talk before it even happens. He has shown that he’ll bend quickly to neocon pressure, with increased interest in foreign war (Bolton hiring) and the ramping up of hostilities by bouncing Russians from the U.S. over the phony poisoning story in the UK.

    1. a different chris

      I don’t disagree with your comment, but not comfortable with the term “bend…to”. Trump gets enamored with different people at different times, but he always is looking down at them. They may get enough rope to scare the rest of us, but they are still on a rope.

      Bolton is horrible, but a lot of other horrible people have come and gone in this really quick year.

    2. cocomaan

      Bolton is horrible but probably won’t last long. Nobody at Trump’s ear has, including his own children.

      Trump just announced that we’re withdrawing from Syria. That’s more than Obama ever did.

      Part of being a nationalist demagogue is that you’re not as interested in foreign wars unless they enrich the country. Not a single one of our wars does that. There’s nothing interesting in mercantilism, for instance, that we can’t do at home (drill baby drill).

      I’m not saying I agree with that view, I’m just saying that if he’s a nationalist demagogue, it only follows that he’s not interested in, uh, “non-for-profit warmaking”.

    3. sgt_doom

      I am NO Trump fan or voter, but it does appear that he’s the first one to apply sanctions to those specific Chinese banks handling the trade with North Korea.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Uh-oh, I find myself agreeing with something that Trump is doing. Does that make me a backward deplorable?

  2. Al Swearengen

    (Somewhat) OT, but it strikes me that the best way to look at Trump is through the lense of what he is – the US version of Sylvio Berlusconi. A sleazy billionaire Oligarch with no core principles and a fondness for Bunga Bunga parties.

    Rather than as LITERALLY HITLER as per the verbiage of hashtag the resistance.

    Thus, rather than as a crazed madman bent on “evil” at all times one wonders whether Mr. Bunga Bunga would do a deal with Lil’ Kim. Sure he would, assuming that the ruling military Junta allows him to. It might be in the interest of the latter to de-escalate this particular hotspot (as NK crisis/hype fatigue may set in) and simply push Iran as the next flashpoint to hype.

    1. sgt_doom

      Indeed! They even sound quite similar — I recall in a speech that Berlusconi gave when he was still the Italian president and the Italian left was screaming for his resignation, Sylvio claimed such demands were making him uneasy, since if he was to go home, and he had 20 homes, it would be difficult for him to decide which house or mansion to go to!

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    It seems the bottom line for negotiations with North Korea have little to do with this article which covers Trump’s thoughts on nuclear proliferation between major powers that have massive stockpiles.

    North Korea is mainly interested in protecting itself from regime change and from becoming a US outpost (as in target) butt up against China. It is hard to believe that Kim Jong-Un would get any advantage whatsoever out of dismantling his nuclear arsenal, however small. One assumes he is aware of Gaddafi in particular and US’s track record on keeping it’s promises – particularly over the span of different administrations – in general.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      The above comment assumes full disarmament as the minimum condition of any “negotiation” since Trump has gone so far out of his way to make that clear.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Oh, and now see the lead story at the Financial Times, China uses economic muscle to bring N Korea to negotiating table:

        China virtually halted exports of petroleum products, coal and other key materials to North Korea in the months leading to this week’s unprecedented summit between Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

        The export freeze — revealed in official Chinese data and going much further than the limits stipulated under UN sanctions — shows the extent of Chinese pressure following the ramping up of Pyongyang’s nuclear testing programme. It also suggests that behind Mr Xi’s talk this week of a “profound revolutionary friendship” between the two nations, his government has been playing hard ball with its neighbour.


    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I would normally agree but Kim Jong-Un was just summoned to China. Not even given a state visit. The Chinese announced North Korea would denuclearlize:

      North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un pledged his commitment to denuclearization and to meet U.S. officials, China said on Wednesday after his meeting with President Xi Jinping, who promised China would uphold friendship with its isolated neighbour.


      China has heretofore pretended that it couldn’t do anything about North Korea. It looks like Trump’s tariff threat extracted China jerking Kim Jong-Un’s chain as a concession. I don’t see how Kim Jong-Un can defy China if China is serious about wanting North Korea to denuclearlize. Maybe it will merely reduce its arsenal and stop threatening Hawaii (even though its ability to deliver rockets that far is in doubt) and just stick to being able to light up Seoul instead.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Agree. I wasn’t aware of the details you mention above regarding the export freeze. (I won’t use Google and my normal ‘trick’ doesn’t work to get around FT’s paywall – and I won’t use the trial membership either). I’m hopeless.

        Anyway, you make a very convincing case. I can only imagine that Kim Jong Un is one miserable scared rat. My point about a “silk noose” below was perhaps on the mark.

      2. neo-realist

        Kim might agree on paper or through an insincere promise to denuclearize, but I don’t see a closed authoritarian regime like the North agreeing to an inspection regime that would insure that such a pledge would be lived up to. Reduction, but build-up on the sly w/o inspections.

        China may be interested in a deal to the extent that it prevents a bloody war breaking out that they’ll probably expend manpower to help clean up and it insures the security of a North Korean buffer that keeps American troops off their border; After all, they’ve got to keep the powder dry for “reunification” with Taiwan.

        I also don’t believe that the US would agree to concessions, such as removing American troops from the peninsula. the pentagon wouldn’t like it, the hawks around Trumps wouldn’t like it, and I believe the SK leadership would not be too crazy about the potential ramifications for their security with such an agreement.

  4. Travis Bickle

    But, can Trump (by extension, the US), make an agreement that can be relied on over its term?

    For any hope of NK trusting any deal with the US he would have to stand by the Iranian deal. Then there’s Bolton and the Neocon Will To War, for deeply pathological reasons which by nature cannot be debated.

    In this case, the mere possibility of a “deal” is possible, but only if there is a third party to hold both of them to it.

    Hello China?

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      That’s the crazy thing about this. What possible inducement could Kim Jong-Un have gotten to attend his own funeral? Why would anyone trust the US an inch?

      I suppose if he can keep his own people in a suspended state of extreme propaganda, then he might be vulnerable to his own medicine, but that seems at odds with his behavior so far (such as the assassination of his uncle). If anything, he would be especially leery of anything coming out of the US.

      And then can he really be that psyched out by Bolton, Pompeo and Torture Lady so that good cop Trump can hand him is own death certificate with a space for his signature?

      1. Travis Bickle

        Whatever happened during this China trip, the overarching theme must have been how to manage the US. Here’s one rough scenario:

        NK ‘disarms’ to some definition, under the auspices of China, acquiring in return an explicit Chinese security umbrella for the buffer it presents between them and SK. Nobody really wants a unified Korea in any case. In return, the US vacates SK militarily, ever so discretely and over time.

        Done correctly, and with the finesse necessary for Trump, China is in a position to extract all sorts of concessions from the US on other fronts as well. Nothing positive is going to happen here without China, and they hold most of the cards. If nothing positive happens, we have to consider the pressure that’d build on Trump to do something, anything, and that probably being something rash. (Better a big disaster over there than a mammoth one over here thinking).

  5. gearandgrit

    “he can’t go willy nilly and set nukes a-flying just because it struck him as a good idea that day.”

    I mean sure. His “button” isn’t literally connected to a missile somewhere, but he sure as hell can ask that nukes be fired whenever and wherever he wants. You could argue that someone in the chain of command would prevent that from happening, but that’s more of a hope than a guarantee. For a really good read on how this all works and the history of the nuclear program I highly recommend https://www.amazon.com/Command-Control-Damascus-Accident-Illusion/dp/0143125788

    With Bolton on board and seemingly everyone with half a brain, a little logic and the ability to hold their tongue for more than about 5 seconds out, I highly doubt anything will come of these negotiations. In fact, I’m more worried that the US will get steamrolled by China and NK.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That isn’t true. See the link I provided, which you clearly did not bother to read. Various people can refuse his order as illegal. Former Secretary of State Jim Baker, in a Financial Times, before Trump was elected, said the same thing. Bolton is the National Security Adviser. He may have a lot of informal power by having direct access to the President, but he does not tie in to the formal chain of command, either at the DoD or State.

      1. gearandgrit

        Oh I read it and I’ve read many other articles and a lot of non-fiction on the issue. Again, I would call your position and the position of this article hopeful at best. Trump has the football, he has the codes in his jacket pocket and everyone responsible for carrying out the order to launch has been raised up through a military system that ensures no one questions an order from their superior. Relying on various people to refuse his order as illegal in this system is not a fail-safe I feel comfortable with. I do find it interesting that you just assume I didn’t read the article as if this one article is the end all be all on the subject.

  6. David

    The article seems a bit confused about what it’s trying to say. Stopping nuclear proliferation has been a major policy priority of the US and other western governments since the 1960s, and if I recall correctly it was one of Bolton’s priorities when he was in Bush the Lesser’s administration. It’s something in which all of the declared nuclear powers have an interest, because the smaller the number of nuclear powers in the world, the greater the difference between them and the rest. This is much more important than wild fantasies about rogue attacks: if N Korea becomes a de facto nuclear power like India, Israel and Pakistan, then all sorts of other countries might be tempted to have a go, starting with S Korea (which has the capacity and has been caught cheating before). Whilst this risk is objectively small, an end to the NK programme would make it even smaller. I suspect the deal will be that NK denuclearizes and China guarantees its security: a non-nuclear NK will be even more of a client state than it is now.
    Nuclear competition among the superpowers is quite different and involves a whole set of different issues.

    1. Anonymized

      I think Japan would develop nukes before South Korea. They already have a lot of experienced nuclear energy technicians and scientists, more existing infrastructure for uranium enrichment, and unlike South Korea, they don’t feel any kind of kinship with the Northerners so it’d be easier to sell it to their populace. They’re more scared of North Korea than the Southerners are.

      If the US pledges to reduce or remove their nuclear arsenal and armed forces in the area it would do a lot to reassure the North Korean ruling class that their position is secure. Their nuclear program is very expensive to run so it’s not as if they’d want to throw more money at keeping it going once they feel relatively safe.

  7. Synoia

    since one of Trump’s salient characteristics is to have no enduring principles

    I beg to differ. He most certainly has enduring principles:

    1. My Children
    2. Me
    3. My current wife.
    4. My money

    The exact order is debatable, situational, and probably not provable.

    1. Edward E

      5. My Wall

      Less warfare = more wall
      But remember the last time Trump said something in Syria’s favor? A chemical attack happened in small village for no logical reason and the hawks immediately took to framing Assad. Trump then backed off and took harder line on Assad, launching missiles into Syria.

      So I’m inclined to think he wants a deal. But look out for screaming hawks immediately trying to scuttle anything.

  8. Tomonthebeach

    Perhaps 30 years ago, Trump was an international defense luminary, but I see little evidence of the boasted emotional control and cool Trump claimed. He is unarguably a successful grifter. Is that what it takes to make peace? What happens when the other guy realizes he has been lied to by a congenital liar? Back to square 1.

    In my take, the recent meeting between the heads of China and N Korea just Trumped any leverage the US might have had in peace talks. Trump will be there only if a scapegoat is needed. Both S. Korea and Japan have expressed doubts about our reliability as a defense shield against powerful China – Japan and the Koreans’ neighbor. What Little Rocketman has likely achieved is diplomatically checkmating the US. Now Trump’s tariff threats serve only to push US allies in the region closer to China. Should that turn out to be the case, the economic repercussions are as dangerous and unpredictable as nukes in the air or as Trump himself. I sure hope I got this all wrong.

  9. RBHoughton

    “no enduring principles” is a feature of politicians everywhere today. Their concern is to represent the rich and their qualification is to present those biased arguments in a way that beguiles the electorate into supposing its a good idea for them as well. Step Two is the “who would have thought it?” response after the country catches on.

    In former times the candidate for public office would assert his principles on the hustings and the voters would remember what they knew of him before voting. Sure, there were ambitious unreliable people who were willing to exchange their reputations for office but they were few. We should get back to those days.

    We allowed our merchants and spooks to drive USSR to the precipice without any thoughts about the nukes they had. It appeared then that warheads supposedly in Ukraine were missing. We will likely discover what happened to them in due course. It is possible that surveillance of communications is the main reason they are not a thread for the time being but that does not mean they have dropped out of existence.

    Thank you NC for introducing an issue that should concern economists as much as everyone else.

  10. Coldhearted Liberal

    North Korea’s negotiating position has not really changed with the announcement. They have repeatedly said for years they are willing to agree to denuclearization of the Peninsula in return for security guarantees. I find the media trumpeting this as a new development rather vexing. Anyways, China has been putting the screws on them since about September/October (Apparently, they told Kim Jongun they know they can’t overthrow the DPRK government, but they can get rid of him personally), which is also why there have not been any new nuclear tests.

    Don’t forget the United States has itself promised to denuclearize, under the NPT.

  11. Plenue

    It would certainly bring me great pleasure if Trump of all people were to bring about some great positive change in regards to the Forever War with North Korea. Imagine all the whining liberals if Trump, unlike Obama, actually did something worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

  12. Roland

    I think Yves has got it right: USA threatens PRC with tariffs, so PRC pressures NK to make concessions to the USA. i.e. Two big guys screwing the little guy.

    PRC and NK leaders might think that all they have to do is get through a short patch of bad weather until 2020. If so, they are badly kidding themselves.

    In the USA, imperialist machtpolitik is a thoroughly bipartisan affair. It doesn’t matter how faithfully NK or PRC might fulfill obligations. Trump’s successors, whoever they may be, will simply apply more pressure and demand more concessions. They won’t stop until somebody else stops them.

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