The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Trump's lack of nuclear knowledge is what's really scary

with Paulina Firozi


A year-and-a-half ago, Donald Trump was thrown a question about the U.S. nuclear arsenal that he still hasn't answered very satisfactorily.

"The B-52s are older than I am. The missiles are old. The submarines are aging out," conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Trump during a presidential primary debate in December 2015. "What's your priority among our nuclear triad?"

The  "triad" Hewitt was referring to is the three ways by which the United States can deliver thermonuclear bombs to enemy targets abroad. Currently, the U.S. military can launch nuclear attacks using intercontinental ballistic missiles launched from land, missiles launched from submarines and ordnance dropped by plane.

Trump's rambling response at the time, during which he went on a false tangent claiming to have been "totally against going into Iraq," betrayed a stunning lack of knowledge about the singular responsibility of the nation's commander in chief: Control of the nation's nukes.

Trump has a history of imprecision when discussing nuclear weapons, to put it kindly. This is true of other topics, but other topics are of less consequence than nuclear annihilation. The breadth and depth of knowledge Trump demonstrates about the most dangerous weapons possessed by the country he now commands has not gotten much better since he became president. 

Amid the saber-rattling between Trump and North Korea's erratic leader, Kim Jong Un, the president claimed on Twitter that much has changed with the U.S. arsenal since he was handed the nuclear codes in January. 

The pair of tweets appear to be intended as a projection of strength during a period of brinkmanship between the two countries. They followed an assertion from Trump that North Korea's threats would be “met with fire and fury" and come at a moment when trust in the words coming out of the president's mouth is paramount.

But was Trump's first order as president to modernize the nuclear arsenal? And is it now more powerful than ever because of Trump?

No, and no.

Trump's first order as president concerned the Affordable Care Act. However, his first national security memorandum, issued a week after inauguration, called for a new "Nuclear Posture Review," or NPR. That is the document in which the U.S. military spells out its nuclear weapons strategy. The review officially began in April and won't be completed until the end of the year, the Pentagon said.

More to the point, an effort to modernize the nation's nuclear weapons is indeed underway — thanks to former President Obama. Trump's predecessor signed into law an overhaul that will cost $1 trillion over 30 years. The plan includes updating equipment for the land, sea and air legs of the nuclear triad. But that plan is not expected to be deployed until well into the next decade.

Nuclear experts who talked to The Post were flabbergasted by Trump's assertion. Here's a sampling of the reaction:

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “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,” said Doug Wilson, a former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Obama administration. “To say ‘bingo, the nuclear arsenal is modernized’ is fiction.”

Unsurprisingly, Trump's claims on the weapons modernization got "Four Pinocchios" from The Post's fact-checkers. But Trump's past rhetoric on how he would deploy the weapons at hand today manages to be even more confusing.

During another presidential debate in September of last year — this one against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — Trump was asked if he would ever use a nuclear weapon first in any conflict.

His muddled answer. Yes. And no.

"I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over," he said.

But then he contradicted himself. "At the same time, we have to be prepared," Trump said. "I can’t take anything off the table."

Programming note: The Energy 202 is going on vacation! We’ll be back in your inbox on Aug. 22. We hope you enjoy some time off as well.


-- Pruitt in North Dakota: On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator held meetings in Fargo and Grand Forks to discuss, among other topics, the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule, which greatly expanded the number of waterways under the protection of federal water pollution law and, before it was rolled back by the Trump administration, was poised to affect the agricultural industry in the state.

Whereas previous visits by Obama Cabinet officials in the state involved meeting with regular North Dakota residents, Pruitt's meetings were closed to the public and the press.

The Grand Forks Herald reported that two of its reporters "were asked by representatives of Pruitt to leave the grounds" of the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, which Pruitt was visiting. The newspaper said that Pruitt met with representatives from the agriculture and energy industries as well as lawmakers.

Corey Mock, a Democratic-NPL member of the North Dakota House of Representatives who attended the Grand Forks meeting, told The Energy 202 "there was generally consensus in the need for consistency and predictability in energy regulation."

He added, "I don't know why the meeting itself was closed to the press." Another attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the discussion was not off-the-cuff and didn't seem to warrant excluding journalists.

-- Meanwhile at EPA headquarters, police officers determined that Wednesday afternoon reports of gunshots in the EPA headquarters were unfounded:


"The floors where the shots were reported were cleared. FPS says that the gunshot reports were unfounded, there were no injuries and the building is secure," spokeswoman Liz Bowman added in a statement to the Washington Examiner. EPA employees were able to return to the building at 5:30 p.m.

-- “For at least the past decade, Republican Party leaders' position on climate change has evolved inverse to scientific evidence,” writes The Post's Amber Phillips. “As scientists have spent the past decade firming up their conclusion that climate change is a real threat, Republican politicians have solidified their doubt about it. In fact, the party's past three presidential nominees have all backed off their prior assertions that climate change is a threat caused by humans.”

The key point: Each GOP presidential nominee has started out less convinced of climate change than his predecessor.

  • John McCain in 2008: “I believe climate change is real."
  • Mitt Romney in 2012: "We don't know what's causing climate change."
  • And of course, Donald Trump in 2016: "I am not a great believer in man-made climate change"

-- The New York Times issued a correction on its scoop on a forthcoming climate assessment being done by 13 federal agencies.

"An article on Tuesday about a sweeping federal climate change report referred incorrectly to the availability of the report," the correction reads. "While it was not widely publicized, the report was uploaded by the nonprofit Internet Archive in January; it was not first made public by The New York Times." 

Indeed, earlier drafts had been available online for some time. Erik Wemple, a media blogger for The Post, writes: "That correction, which sits at the foot of the story, dutifully straightens out the record. Yet given the magnitude of the screw-up, it should sit atop the story." The previous language, Wemple said, suggested that the report might not have seen the light of day without the newspaper's intervention.


-- No jail time for Jill: A North Dakota judge accepted a plea deal for former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, who won’t serve any jail time for protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline last year.

Stein will be required to pay $250 in fines and will be on unsupervised probation for six months, the Associated Press reported.

-- "West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is asking President Donald Trump to extend his support for the coal industry by providing some $4.5 billion a year in federal funding for Eastern coal," Dan Molinski reports in The Wall Street Jounral.

Does it have a chance? Such a subsidy would, of course, align with Trump's interest in protecting remaining coal mining jobs, especially in West Virginia, where the governor recently switched from being a Democrat to being a Republican. But it's hard to see the rest of the fossil-fuel industry backing such a regional and fuel-specific handout.


-- Solar eclipse gives natural gas a day in the sun: More than 9,000 megawatts of solar power may shut down as the eclipse casts a shadow on a 70-mile wide path from Oregon to South Carolina, Bloomberg has reported. States will have to tap into gas generators and other sources to help keep the power on. Bloomberg writes:

During the upcoming Aug. 21 eclipse, operators of giant solar fields from California to the Carolinas will cede market share to fast-start natural gas generators as well as hydroelectric plants and other sources to fill the gaps as the sky darkens. The celestial event, the first total solar eclipse visible in the lower 48 states since 1979, will provide owners of gas turbines a chance to shine even as the fossil-fuel is expected to be displaced over time by solar and wind energy.

-- Targeting renewables: Target has agreed to buy 100 megawatts of wind energy from a wind project in Kansas, which will be used to offset energy use at 150 area stores, Bloomberg reports.

It’s the big-box store’s second wind deal, according to the report. The first was made in Texas to help power 60 stores in the state. Construction on the latest deal will happen next year. 


-- On a mission in the Arctic: In the second installation in the series, The Post’s Chris Mooney writes about two travelers who arrived from Greenland to get an early chance to sail their boat through the waters of the Northwest Passage. The couple is staying in a small hotel in an Inuit community on Cornwallis Island until more ice clears.

“In the meantime, they were making friends in Resolute, an Inuit community of about 200 that is the second-most northern town in Canada. It serves as a gateway to points even deeper in the Arctic, such as the North Pole,” Mooney writes.

See here for more from Mooney’s latest report from Resolute, Nunavut and accompanying photographs from our colleague Alice Li. And if you missed it, here’s the first installation of their series.

-- Hurricane season: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned 2017 could be an “extremely active season” for tropical storms and hurricanes, predicting a 60 percent change of an above-normal season, CNBC reported.

The agency expects somewhere from five to nine hurricanes over the season, and upped its forecast to now estimating 14 to 19 named storms in total. NOAA initially predicted 11 to 17 total named storms, the Associated Press notes.

-- Sea rise “hot spots”: The sea level is rising globally, but a new paper reveals that along the southeastern coastline of the United States, starting at Cape Hatteras, the waters are rising at a rate six times faster than the global rate, the New York Times reports.

What’s to blame? “In the paper, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the scientists proposed a mechanism to explain the rapid increase: Two large-scale atmospheric patterns had intersected to push up the water off the Southeast coast, causing a ‘hot spot’ of sea-level rise. This new mechanism, if it holds up to scientific scrutiny, might ultimately give researchers the ability to predict tidal flooding more accurately and warn communities what to expect months in advance.”

-- The circle of salmon life: To make up for the diminishing numbers of salmon in rivers in the Northwest, fish hatcheries are supplementing the ecosystem with their own process of tossing salmon carcasses into rivers. Mother Jones describes these programs and the importance of the salmon to the health of forests surrounding the rivers in the Pacific Northwest:

When they die, their bodies decompose along banks, where the tree roots and creatures absorb their fertile nutrients. Nitrogen, especially, is a key gift to forests, because it’s needed for both chlorophyll, which is essential to photosynthesis, and nucleic acids, which are found at the heart of every cell. Within 80 feet of the streams where salmon nest and decompose, tree-growth rates can be triple that of nearby salmonless rivers.



  • Resources for the Future is holding a webinar on “Exploring the Effects of Energy Resource Booms on Public Education” 
  • The Boston Climate Action Network holds a meeting today.
  • Michelle Romero, deputy director of Green For All, moderates a panel on “Forging a state-led path to climate justice in the era of Trump” at the Netroots Nation conference in Atlanta.

Coming Up

  • The International Food Policy Research Institute is holding a datathon event to support agricultural research and development on Friday
  • Congress is on recess until September 5. 

The Trump administration’s mixed messages on North Korea:

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)

Why tiny Guam is in North Korea's crosshairs:

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)

This is why you need special sunglasses to view the total eclipse:

Capital Weather Gang's Angela Fritz explains what could happen to your eyes if you were to watch the Aug. 21. eclipse without special sunglasses. (Video: Claritza Jimenez, Daron Taylor, Angela Fritz/The Washington Post)

Why was there a giant inflatable chicken outside the White House?:


Why was there an Inflatable chicken outside White House? (Video: Reuters)

Stephen Colbert teases a Monday interview with Anthony Scaramucci: