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Trump warns N. Korea: U.S. nuclear arsenal is ‘more powerful than ever before’

The Fix’s Aaron Blake looks at how President Trump’s threats to North Korea contrast with the milder tone of his Cabinet secretaries. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — President Trump asserted Wednesday that under his tenure, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” making an inflated claim as he continued to ratchet up the heated rhetoric with North Korea.

Trump’s projection of U.S. nuclear strength comes during a moment of rhetorical brinkmanship between him and North Korea's erratic leader, Kim Jong Un. Trump used extraordinarily chilling language for a U.S. president on Tuesday afternoon when he warned that North Korea's nuclear provocations would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Trump continued with the same tone in a pair of tweets he sent Wednesday morning from Bedminster, N.J., where he is on a working vacation at his private golf resort. Trump relayed that his “first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.”

“It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” Trump wrote, adding that “hopefully we will never have to use this power.”

Trump's suggestion, however, that the nuclear arsenal already has been modernized under his presidency is misleading at best, given the military is still operating under a course charted during the Obama administration and any additional modernization could take many years to implement.

Trump’s bizarre brag about the nuclear arsenal doesn’t square with reality

“Nothing’s happened yet,” said Todd Harrison, director of Defense Budget Analysis at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. “Obviously, these changes take time. You can’t do much in six or seven months.”

On Jan. 27, one week after his inauguration, Trump issued a congressionally mandated order directing the Defense Department to launch a Nuclear Posture Review, a major undertaking that will set his administration's nuclear policy.

Tillerson defends Trump’s forceful warning to North Korea

The Pentagon has said the review, which officially began in April, is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The last such review was conducted in 2010 under the Obama administration. As a result of a deal struck with Republicans, the military developed a purchasing plan to update all three legs of the nuclear triad with modernized weapon systems.

Modernization efforts underway include new nuclear-capable submarines, bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. But those are not expected to be deployed until well into the 2020s — in some cases, after a two-term President Trump would have left office.

President Trump’s political rhetoric on North Korea has differed from before he declared his candidacy to now. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

“Any decision that the president were to take now, or that he took in January, would take years to implement,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who served in the Obama administration as the National Security Council's senior director for nonproliferation and arms control. “I'm very skeptical of the idea that Trump believes that he has modernized or adjusted our arsenal, because there have been no visible changes to it.”

Harrison said there are also modernization programs underway, launched during the Obama era, at the Department of Energy, which controls the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

But, he said: “Nothing has really changed in the nuclear arsenal that is available.”

In fact, the U.S. arsenal continues to shrink under the terms of the New START treaty signed with Russia that took effect in 2011.

North Korea now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, U.S. analysts say

In a statement Wednesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emphasized the military’s current capabilities and readiness related to North Korea.

“President Trump was informed of the growing threat last December and on taking office his first orders to me emphasized the readiness of our ballistic missile defense and nuclear deterrent forces,” Mattis said. “While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.”

Asked about Trump’s tweets on nuclear modernization, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters pointed reporters in New Jersey to the order signed by Trump in January.

It directed the secretary of defense to initiate a review “to ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready and appropriately tailored to deter 21-st century threats and reassure our allies.”

Why North Korea threatened Guam, the tiny U.S. territory with big military power

That alone does not amount to modernizing the nuclear arsenal, said Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Obama administration.

“If he’s been able to modernize the nuclear arsenal in the six months he’s been in office, he should have no trouble selling Brooklyn Bridges to anybody,” Wilson said. “To say ‘bingo, the nuclear arsenal is modernized’ is fiction.”

Meanwhile, White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said in a Wednesday morning television interview that the brinkmanship with North Korea “is analogous to the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president who works on the national security staff, warned, “Don't test this White House.”

“He’s saying, ‘Don’t test America, and don’t test Donald J. Trump,'" Gorka said on “Fox & Friends,” the Trump-friendly morning show on Fox News Channel that the president often watches.

Gorka added: “We are not just a superpower. We were a superpower. We are now a hyperpower. Nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close to challenging our military capabilities, whether they’re conventional, whether they’re nuclear, or whether they’re Special Forces. So this message is very clear: Don’t test this White House, Pyongyang.”

Gorka was asked about criticism of Trump’s rhetoric about “fire and fury,” including from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who on Tuesday night said it probably wasn’t helpful.

“It saddens me,” Gorka said. “We need to come together. And anybody, whether they’re a member of Congress, whether they’re a journalist, if you think that your party politics, your ideology, trumps the national security of America, that’s an indictment of you, and you need to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what’s more important: my political party or America. There’s only one correct answer.”

Here's why North Korea threatened an island in the Pacific that's home to 160,000 people. (Video: Victoria Walker, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Earlier Wednesday, Trump retweeted links to two segments from “Fox & Friends” recounting his pledge to respond to continuing North Korea threats with “fire and fury,” as well as another about the United States moving two Air Force B-1B bombers to Guam, the U.S. territory that North Korea threatened Tuesday.In December, before taking office, Trump created consternation for many foreign policy experts with an assertion on Twitter that the country should “greatly strengthen and expand” its nuclear capability.

The next day, after his staff had tried to temper his comments, Trump doubled down, telling a television talk-show host that in an arms race against any competitor, the United States would “outmatch them at every pass.”

Wagner reported from Washington.