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Nuclear experts are dumbfounded by Trump’s odd nuclear arsenal tweets

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)

President Trump tweeted a warning to North Korea on Wednesday morning. Pointing to his executive order to “renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal,” he said that arsenal is “now stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

The contention in these tweets is not based in reality.

Trump, yet again, appears to be overinflating his accomplishments as president. And what's more, judging by these tweets, he doesn't seem to even understand his own nuclear arsenal or its current status.

Experts on these things make clear:

  1. A meaningful advance in less than seven months of the Trump administration is fantasy — there's just no way it's much different than it was when Trump took over.
  2. Trump doesn't appear to have done anything more than order a review of the nuclear arsenal.
  3. Even if we set aside the above, the arsenal simply isn't “stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

“It’s absurd; this is like — you have to be the biggest hayseed in America to believe this,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “There’s no point at which this statement touches reality.”

Others were more measured but were clearly skeptical of Trump's contention.

“Any decision that the president were to take now, or that he took in January, would take years to implement,” Jon Wolfsthal, a former Obama administration official at the National Security Council, told The Post's Philip Rucker and John Wagner. “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.”

In response to questions from reporters, the White House pointed to Trump's Jan. 27 executive order calling for a “Nuclear Posture Review.” But as Lewis told me, this is nothing more than a study that doesn't appear to have been completed or acted upon in any manner. The Pentagon has said it will be completed by the end of the year. It's a study that the last four presidents have also undertaken, meaning it's hardly an unusual step or something for Trump to gloat about.

In Trump’s North Korea warnings, his military school classmates hear echoes of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis

Lewis noted that these reviews have actually generally slowed progress by delaying decision-making. And he said they are so fraught and often unhelpful that both the Obama and the George W. Bush administrations basically had to be forced into conducting them.

Just as important, there is also no public indication that the nuclear arsenal is suddenly more advanced or stronger than it was decades ago. And even if it were, experts say, it's because of a “very aggressive” $1 trillion modernization plan that was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

"The U.S. has strengthened missile defenses against North Korea during [Trump's] watch notably by deploying a group of interceptors in South Korea, but that plan was set in motion by Obama," said Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University.

Here's a look at how the U.S. nuclear stockpile has evolved over time, from the Arms Control Association.

Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, tweeted back at Trump on Wednesday morning.

Trump appears to have been careful with his wording. He doesn't technically attach his own decision to the arsenal allegedly being stronger than ever; he instead places his signing of the order next to that alleged fact.

But neither the insinuation nor the underlying contention about the nuclear program suggest he understands what he's talking about.