When President Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki for their 2018 summit meeting, he took the Russian leader by surprise.
At a one-on-one meeting, Putin tried to “trip Trump up” by making an “inaccurate assertion on the terms of extending” a 2010 nuclear arms control treaty, according to then-National Security Council official and Russia expert Fiona Hill.
“Everyone knew that Trump never paid attention to his brief,” Hill wrote in her book, There Is Nothing For You Here.
But Trump caught the inaccuracy, and then brought it up at a group lunch with cabinet members at the summit, Hill wrote.
“Putin was slightly embarrassed and had to walk his comments back and clarify,” she wrote, adding that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov then “glared at him.”
“When it came to nuclear weapons, Trump always had a pattern break with the norm, which showed that he really cared about the topic,” Hill wrote. “He was genuinely interested and paid attention when nuclear issues came up.”
Trump has long been fascinated with nuclear weapons, per multiple accounts. It might sound naive to suggest that he is fascinated with anything beyond himself and his immediate status and power, but in interviews and speeches, the absolute power of nuclear weapons and absolute destruction of nuclear war is a topic to which he has returned year after year.
That fascination gains salience with the revelation last week that the FBI may have been searching for nuclear weapons-related records in its search of Mar-a-Lago.
So far, the Washington Post is the only outlet to report that nuclear weapons-related documents were among those sought by the FBI. The New York Times has reported that the most sensitive documents sought were related to “Special Access Programs” – information that includes some of the most delicate secrets the government possesses.
The fixation on nuclear weapons and the power that they bestow has been an odd theme throughout Trump’s forays into politics, and of his personal bravado. “It would take an hour-and-a-half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles,” Trump told the Washington Post in 1984, adding that his attorney Roy Cohn “really wanted him” to help negotiate a nuclear arms control treaty.
Hill mentioned in her book that in the 1980s Trump had tried to involve himself in President Ronald Reagan’s negotiation of a nuclear arms control treaty with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. That account was separately repeated by Bernard Lown, a peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Lown said in 2018 that Trump reached out to him about trying to get an appointment from President Reagan to negotiate with the Russians.
In 1990, the future President gave a lengthy interview to Playboy Magazine.
Touting him as a “billion-dollar baby” with a knack for politics, the interviewer asked how a hypothetical President Trump would think about the future.
Trump replied that “nuclear war” concerned him, and suggested that it offered the only level of destruction comparable to his typical hyperbole.
“It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it,” he said.
Trump added that “these jerks in charge don’t know how to paint a wall, and we’re relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow,” before saying that a hypothetical future President Trump would “have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it.”
As an actual, and not merely hypothetical President, Trump brought the same kind of bluster to the topic of nukes, but also the insistent claim to deep understanding.
Fielding a question about denuclearizing the Korean peninsula after a 2018 summit with Kim Jong-Un, Trump remarked that he “had an uncle who was a great professor for, I believe, 40 years at MIT.”
“And I used to discuss nuclear with him all the time,” Trump added.
In her book, Hill wrote that Trump appeared to think that he had gained an understanding of nuclear physics by “genetic osmosis” from his uncle.
It’s typical Trump: claiming credit or deep knowledge of an improbably complex topic. It’s bluster, but in this case it may also evince a deeper interest.
Take an account from Bob Woodward’s 2020 book Rage, where Trump bragged about having created an “incredible” nuke system.
“I have built a nuclear — a weapons system that nobody’s ever had in this country before. We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before,” Woodward quoted Trump as telling him. “There’s nobody — what we have is incredible.”
Trump took the same claim on the road in 2020, telling reporters that the U.S. had developed a secret new nuclear weapons system.
“There are systems that nobody knows about, including you,” he told a reporter. “And we have some systems that nobody knows about, and frankly, I think I’m better off keeping it that way.”
It’s a game of grand strategy that partly relies on convincing an opponent that what you have is so strong and so powerful that what you have should never be used, now with a Trumpian flair.
To Hill, it’s also a reflection of the mindset in which Trump was stuck: the 1980s.
“Now that he was President, Trump saw his chance to finish off the 1980s,” she wrote. “He would sit down with Putin and finally conclude the elusive big U.S.-Russian arms control deal.”
That never happened.
And it’s not clear what the records at Mar-a-Lago may have been – if related to nuclear weapons, were they American? Or information about a foreign arsenal?