Way back in 1987, journalist Ron Rosenbaum interviewed real estate developer and casino mogul Donald Trump on a somewhat unusual topic — nuclear weapons.
Rosenbaum has long been interested in the issue (he even wrote a book, How The End Begins: The Road to Nuclear World War III), but Trump at the time didn’t have much of a political profile. This was before his businesses went bankrupt in the early 1990s, before he bilked middle-class retail investors to make a comeback, and before he reinvented himself in the 21st century as a reality television star and brand licensing entrepreneur. But from the beginning, Trump had a flare for publicity and he came up with some ideas on nuclear weapons that were certainly interesting enough to be worth writing up.
And so Rosenbaum wrote them up for a now-defunct magazine called Manhattan, Inc. Rosenbaum then republished them in March 2016 at Slate.
But they have a newfound resonance this winter. The reason is that Trump has baffled many observers by seeming to call for a nuclear weapons buildup even while he consistently seeks warmer ties with Russia. Traditionally, nuke-building has been seen as an anti-Russian move. If we invest more in our arsenal, they have to invest more in response. And since the United States is bigger and richer, we can win at this game. The offsetting problem is that the arms race game costs us money, risks global catastrophe, and tends to encourage proliferation to other states.
Trump’s unique contribution to the debate as it stood in the late-’80s was that this was all misframed. The Reagan administration, he argued, should worry less about competing with the Soviet Union and more about teaming up with the USSR to get nukes out of everyone else’s hands.
We don’t know if these ideas still guide Trump’s thinking, or if he’s totally forgotten ever giving this interview. But either way, it provides a fascinating window in the president-elect’s views on nuclear proliferation and the relationship between Moscow and Washington.
Trump was worried about nuclear terrorism
One key early part of the story shows Trump to be in many ways an ahead-of-his time thinker on the subject of nuclear terrorism. While the world was focused on the Cold War, Trump — under the influence of his uncle, a celebrated engineer who works on defense projects — was worried about the possible development of nuclear weapons by non-state actors:
“My uncle who just passed away was a great scientist,” Trump is telling me as we make our way out of his office to the elevator. “He was a professor at MIT. Dr. John Trump. In fact, together with Dr. Van de Graaff they did the Van de Graaff generator. He was the earliest pioneer in radiation therapy for cancer. He spent his whole life fighting cancer and he ended up dying of it.”
It was his uncle, Trump tells me, who got him started thinking about The Subject.
“He told me something a few years ago,” Trump recalls. “He told me, ‘You don’t realize how simple nuclear technology is becoming.’ That’s scary. He said it used to be that only a few brains in the world understood it and now you have a situation where thousands and thousands of brains can easily understand it, and it’s becoming easier, and someday it’ll be like making a bomb in the basement of your house. And that’s a very frightening statement coming from a man who’s totally versed in it.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attack, this kind of scenario became a policy obsession. There is clearly a group of people who believe in the rightness and efficacy of mass murder of civilians, do not fear retaliation, and would presumably use a nuclear weapon if they could get one. ISIS’s success in engendering mass fear on the basis of relatively small-scale attacks in Europe has somewhat taken the focus off the nuclear terrorism point, but it obviously remains a concern.
Trump thought the US should worry more about proliferation
In a related section of the story, Trump explains his view that the focus on the US-USSR arms race is excessive. The real issue that people should be focusing on is the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries — a spread encouraged even by US allies such as France:
“I believe they’re sort of fools,” Trump says. “They only think about Russia. Russian and U.S. weapons. But the summit is a joke. It’s not about the real nuclear problem. You have countries like France that are openly and blatantly selling nuclear technology.”
Trump is very down on the French.
“They’ve got an arrogant head of the country, who I think is a total fool, and he’s trying to make up for his losses by selling this technology to anyone, and it’s a disgrace. It’s a disgrace.”
So what’s the solution? I ask him. How do you get the French to stop, how do you get French technology out of the hands of the Pakistanis at this point?
“I think you have to come down on them very hard economically or whatever way,” Trump says. “I think the solution is largely economic. Because there are so many of these countries that are so fragile and we have a vast power that’s never been used. They depend on us for food, for medical supplies. And I would never even suggest using it except on this issue. But this issue supersedes all other things.”
“I guess the easy thing would be to say you go in and clean it out.”
“Like the Israelis did with the Iraqi plant?”
“I don’t necessarily want to advocate that publicly because it comes off radical. And you know, without a lot of discussion prior to saying that, it sounds very foolish and this is why I get very concerned about discussing it at all.”
This is a little bit extreme (or as Trump says, “radical”) but it’s fundamentally familiar to the 21st-century political debate. Economic sanctions were used against Iran to halt its nuclear weapons program. Many critics of the deal that ultimately lifted those sanctions feel that Barack Obama’s administration was excessively reluctant to contemplate using military force as part of the equation.
Trump wanted to make a deal with the USSR
The article then goes off on a long digression about Trump’s various business undertakings. But it eventually returns to Trump’s core idea — one that seems broadly familiar to those who’ve listened to his recent foreign policy priorities.
Trump wanted the Reagan administration to essentially stop fighting the Cold War, and collaborate with the Soviets on maintaining a US-USSR duopoly on nuclear weapons:
So what is the deal Trump thinks can be done? What is the Trump Plan?
It’s a deal with the Soviets. We approach them on this basis: We both recognize the nonproliferation treaty’s not working, that half a dozen countries are on the brink of getting a bomb. Which can only cause trouble for the two of us. The deterrence of mutual assured destruction that prevents the United States and the USSR from nuking each other won’t work on the level of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange. Or a madman dictator with a briefcase-bomb team. The only answer is for the Big Two to make a deal now to step in and prevent the next generation of nations about to go nuclear from doing so. By whatever means necessary.
“Most of those [pre-nuclear] countries are in one form or another dominated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” Trump says. “Between those two nations you have the power to dominate any of those countries. So we should use our power of economic retaliation and they use their powers of retaliation and between the two of us we will prevent the problem from happening. It would have been better having done something five years ago,” he says. “But I believe even a country such as Pakistan would have to do something now. Five years from now they’ll laugh.”
“You think Pakistan would just fold? We wouldn’t have to offer them anything in return?”
“Maybe we should offer them something. I’m saying you start off as nicely as possible. You apply as much pressure as necessary until you achieve the goal. You start off telling them, ‘Let’s get rid of it.’ If that doesn’t work you then start cutting off aid. And more aid and then more. You do whatever is necessary so these people will have riots in the street, so they can’t get water. So they can’t get Band-Aids, so they can’t get food. Because that’s the only thing that’s going to do it—the people, the riots.”
Rosenbaum follows up by asking about France, and Trump says “I’d come down on them so hard.”
“If they didn’t give it up,” Trump says “and I don’t mean reduce it, and I don’t mean stop, because stopping doesn’t mean anything. I mean get it out. If they didn’t, I would bring sanctions against that country that would be so strong, so unbelievable.”
30 years later…
Does Donald Trump have a secret, long-held plan to overturn decades of American foreign policy, forge an alliance with Russia, and deliver a one-two punch to force other countries — including NATO allies like France — to give up their nuclear programs?
I have no idea. Trump has said a lot of things over the years, including that he favors a government guarantee of health insurance and legal abortion in all circumstances, that he appears to no longer believe. He’s had a lot of opportunities over the course of the past year to try to explain in clearer terms what it is that draws him to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and he’s never offered this as a reason.
On the other hand, he clearly does have some kind of interest in a geopolitical rapprochement with Moscow, and he’s never really made it clear what it is he thinks he can get in exchange for making concessions to Russia on Syria and Ukraine. Maybe this scheme to turn the screws on France and Pakistan is the intended endgame. Or maybe Trump has entirely forgotten that this interview ever happened.