President Trump has called nuclear weapons "the single greatest problem the world has" – but he's also made some controversial statements about them. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

It began, it seems, with a speech from Vladimir Putin on Thursday, during which the Russian president argued that his country's nuclear arsenal needed to be upgraded. In short order a tense two-day stand-off began -- between Donald Trump and the communications staffers on his transition team.

Trump weighs in.

Trump's initial comment about nuclear proliferation was clear in its intent if vague in its boundaries.

"The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability" is not subtle, implying that as president Trump aims to match whatever it is that Russia does. That, as we pointed out on Thursday, means a new nuclear arms race, contravening decades of American foreign policy.

His team pushes back.

Not so fast, though. On Thursday afternoon, transition spokesman Jason Miller sent out a statement about Trump's declaration.

"President-elect Trump was 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," Miller wrote in an email to The Post. "He has also emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength."

"[T]he threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it" is language that comports with existing policy -- but it does not comport with what Trump himself said. The word "expand" is hard to avoid, but in the spirit of generosity one might allow that the president-elect misspoke on Twitter.

Trump suggests he meant what he said.

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" on Friday, co-host Mika Brzezinski reported on a conversation she'd had directly with Trump.

CO-HOST JOE SCARBOROUGH: The president-elect told you what?

BRZEZINSKI: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass."

SCARBOROUGH: "And outlast them all."

BRZEZINSKI: "And outlast them all."

SCARBOROUGH: OK. You can put that down as breaking news.

The conversation continued with the question of whether Trump was simply posturing in order to seem unpredictable. The Post's David Ignatius, who was part of that discussion, noted that it was more likely that Trump was reverting to his old pattern: Being criticized for something he'd said and then doubling down on it in response.

The transition team assures us he didn't mean what he said.

The conversation moved to NBC proper, where "Today" show host Matt Lauer spoke with Sean Spicer, recently identified as the incoming White House press secretary.

Lauer quoted Trump's tweet.

LAUER: "Expand." Explain it.

SPICER: Well, the tweet continues -- unless other countries come to their senses." And I think the point that he's making is we're not going to sit back as a country and allow other countries to expand their nuclear capability with the U.S. just sitting idly by. This president is going to take action; he's going to make sure that American interests are protected.

Let's interrupt briefly to point out that this is, by definition, an arms race. We will match what others do in terms of developing nuclear arsenals. That's it. Arms race.

This wasn't lost on Lauer.

LAUER: This president then is going to reverse 40 years of policy in this country where presidents since Ronald Reagan pledged to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and warheads we had.

SPICER: Right, but we're not going to sit back, Matt, and let other nations threaten our safety. If another country wants to expand their nuclear capability, the U.S. is not going to sit back and idly by. But just to be clear: The president isn't saying we're going to do this. He said unless they come to their senses. It's a warning to them that this president's going to take action.

Lauer then quoted Trump's remarks to Brzezinski.

SPICER: Other countries need to be put on notice that he's not going to sit back and allow them to undermine our safety, our sovereignty. He is going to match other countries and take action.

LAUER: Was this a knee-jerk reaction, a shoot-from-the-hip reaction to Vladimir Putin yesterday saying that he plans to fortify the Russian nuclear arsenal?

SPICER: There's been several countries, Russia among them, that have talked about expanding their nuclear capability. The point that he was making was very clear: Other countries that want to threaten U.S. safety, are not going to sit back and allow this country to not act.

LAUER: But if there's going to be an arms race ...

SPICER: There's not going to be! Because he's going to ensure that other countries get the message that he's not going to sit back and allow that. And what's going to happen is, they will come to their senses and we will all be just fine.

It is hard to reconcile "he is going to match other countries and take action" with "there's not going to be [a nuclear arms race]." The hair is too thin to split. Promising to engage in a nuclear arms race is not rejecting the idea of a nuclear arms race. Arms races begin when countries promise to engage in them.

Spicer and Miller are caught in the middle between what Trump is saying and what Trump's team wants him to say. As with all great conflicts, this one defies easy resolution.

 

Addressing a gathering of the country's top military officials, Dec. 22, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for strengthening Russia's strategic nuclear forces to enable them to neutralize threats the country may face. (Reuters)