Amid escalating tensions with North Korea, President Trump on Wednesday boasted that he had strengthened the United States’ nuclear capabilities significantly and had added to its ability to take out foreign threats. A closer look at his claim, however, proves that is simply not the case.
“My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before….” Trump tweeted. “…Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
The president was referring to a memorandum he issued back in January, shortly after being sworn into office. The memo, released on January 27, detailed Trump’s plan to “rebuild the U.S. Armed Forces” and “address risks to national security”, among other things.
The timing was fitting; in recent months, North Korea has been carrying out more intercontinental ballistic missile tests and taking aggressive stances toward neighboring countries and western foes. On Monday, North Korean leaders threatened the United States over a new round of sanctions, which would reduce the country’s export revenues by $1 billion. In response Trump tweeted that the nation “best not make any more threats”, adding that they would be “met with fire and fury” if they did.
But the president’s tweets on Wednesday got many of the details wrong. In reality, the current situation is actually a lot more complex than the president would have you believe.
The “order” was not Trump’s first
Contrary to what he tweeted on Wednesday, Trump’s first action as president was actually a sweeping executive order to minimize the economic impact of the Affordable Care Act in any way possible, short of a full repeal, which he had promised during his campaign. The order, signed on January 20, instructed the secretary of Health and Human Services and all department heads to provide greater flexibility to states in implementing health care programs and to encourage an open market system wherever possible.
Trump subsequently issued an additional four executive orders and eight presidential memoranda, as well as one presidential proclamation, before he signed the nuclear memo on January 27. Among those were the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipeline construction memos and a memorandum regarding U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Trump also signed his highly-criticized immigration and travel ban the same day as the nuclear memo.
It wasn’t actually an executive order
Trump’s nuclear order was what’s referred to as a presidential memorandum. Although both executive orders and presidential memoranda are similar in many ways, the latter have become more common in recent years, especially under the Obama administration. Neither require Congress to take any action.
Like executive orders, presidential memoranda also carry as much power as federal law. However, presidents are not required to cite their executive authority when issuing a memorandum and they’re not required to publish them in the Federal Register, though they occasionally do, as was the case with Trump’s nuclear memorandum.
This isn’t the first time that Trump has mixed his words when referring to past directives. As USA Today reported, the president also mistakenly referred to his memoranda on the TPP, the federal workforce hiring freeze, and the Mexico City policy on abortion as “executive orders” back on January 23.
Trump hasn’t actually renovated or “modernized” anything
This is one of the most glaring errors in the president’s tweet. While the original memo did state that the United States should “rebuild” its military forces, it specifically instructed Defense Secretary James Mattis to assess the country’s current nuclear readiness—in what’s called a nuclear posture review—to determine next steps. It also instructed the secretary to work with Office of Budget and Management (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney to prepare a proposal for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget. The memorandum did not actually instruct the Defense Department to carry out any renovations or related updates.
Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that a full overhaul of the country’s current nuclear arsenal and system will take at least 30 years to complete, at a price tag of $1 trillion. The biggest upgrades are not scheduled to take place until after 2024, at which point, the next president could choose to abandon the project altogether.
The nuclear posture review is ongoing
Trump’s insistence that the country’s nuclear arsenal is “now far stronger and more powerful than ever before” is wildly inaccurate. For starters, as mentioned, a full upgrade would not be finished until around 2047, if the CBO’s estimates hold, and the next administration does nothing to change those plans. More importantly, the Pentagon only began its nuclear posture review in April; a full report is not slated to hit the president’s desk until the end of this year. Only after that can officials begin work on upgrading the country’s nuclear systems.
“Modernization” actually began under President Obama
Contrary to what Trump might have his supporters believe, the “modernization” of the U.S. nucelar arsenal actually began under President Obama. Back in 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that his department had plans to upgrade its nuclear forces, including the country’s aging equipment. At the time, the CBO estimated that the entire project would cost around $355 billion (that total later ballooned to the aforementioned $1 trillion).
“No other capability we have is more important,” Hagel said in a statement then. “As long as we have nuclear weapons, we have…to ensure that they are safe, secure and effective.”