Alternative Fact of the Week: Trump's nuclear arsenal

Easily lost in this week’s apocalyptic taunting across the Pacific Ocean was President Donald Trump’s claim that he has personally updated the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Like many of his most noteworthy prevarications (including many that have been judged suitable for Alternative Fact of the Week honors in this space), it was launched early in the morning on Twitter.

“My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal,” the president wrote shortly before 8 a.m. on Wednesday. “It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before....”

That’s quite a claim considering Mr. Trump has only been president 200 or so days. His appointments process has been the slowest in 40 years, as he has so far nominated only 319 individuals for 970 positions. He’s failed to get any meaningful legislation, including health care reform, through a Congress controlled by his own party. He’s on pace to set a record for golfing days (unofficially estimated at 46 rounds at the 28-week mark compared to a dozen at the same point in Barack Obama’s presidency). Yet somehow he’s reached down into the highly technical, extremely expensive and rather thankless task of updating the U.S. nuclear arsenal and achieved measurable success in less time than it has taken to appoint a White House science adviser? You know the same guy who was stumped on a debate question about the components of the nuclear triad?

Here’s a hint: Nobody believes that. Not the American public, not even the most ardent Trump supporters and especially not Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator who successfully goaded the president into a war of nuclear trash-talk that has residents of Guam glancing nervously skyward. After his infamous “fire and fury” off-the-cuff remark Tuesday, President Trump apparently thought he ought to impress President Kim with the quality, and not just quantity, of nuclear weapons the United States has at its disposal and take some personal credit for them, too. As if they had the Trump insignia painted on them and tourists could pick up souvenir versions in the gift shop off the Trump Tower lobby.

The reality, of course, is that he’s done nothing of the kind. The most generous assessment of the claim is that President Trump has initiated what’s known as a “Nuclear Posture Review,” which is simply a periodic study of the current state of the arsenal and how it might be appropriately updated to meet current threats. Every recent president has authorized one, and any current improvements to the nuclear arsenal are the result of President Obama’s last assessment in 2010. It’s a costly effort (an estimated $1 trillion over 30 years) and a somewhat wonky undertaking that considers such factors as whether to buy B-21 bombers or modernize Columbia class submarines. You know, triad stuff.

Indeed, the claim is so obviously false and his involvement with nuclear readiness so overstated in the classic Trumpian manner that it would be tempting to find the whole tweet simply laughable — like the fictional Romy and Michelle claiming to have invented Post-it notes at their high school reunion — except, wait a minute, it’s nuclear weapons we’re talking about. Surely, if there’s anything that deserves to be taken seriously it’s the possibility of unleashing the most destructive force on the planet.

The really weird thing about Mr. Trump’s ridiculous claim is that it was wholly unnecessary. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is already plenty formidable enough without any fake Trump imprimatur. We have 1,650 nuclear warheads, just one of which could unleash 1.2 megatons of destructive power, or about 80 times more than the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Are we supposed to be comforted by a president who exaggerates as well as threatens an unpredictable and dangerous foreign dictator? Thank you for your optimism, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but no, we will not be sleeping well at night.

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