Donald Trump's zest for making offhand quips about his intentions on serious policy matters has launched the United States on a grand experiment: What happens when the world doesn't understand what the American president is trying to say?
In the hours after President-elect Trump tweeted about his desire to expand American nuclear weapons capability — seeming to upend decades of consensus that fewer nukes is better — experts puzzled about what he meant, his own aides seemed to walk his comment back, and Trump himself weighed in to suggest that the most extreme reading of his tweet was the right one.
Trump stunned nuclear experts Thursday by proclaiming in a tweet that "the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."
And on Friday, Trump himself weighed in again, saying in a statement to "Morning Joe" host Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."
While President Barack Obama has proposed a multibillion-dollar plan to modernize the aging U.S. nuclear triad, no mainstream voices are arguing to increase the numbers of nuclear weapons beyond the 4,500 active warheads the U.S. currently possesses, several experts told NBC News.
"The thrust of U.S. nuclear policy for decades now has been to trim the fat off the U.S. nuclear arsenal," said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "At a certain point," he said, quoting Winston Churchill, "you are just making the rubble bounce higher."
"Can a tweet start an arms race? This one may just have done that," said Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.
Trump's tweet about an area of policy in which each word matters set off a frenzy of speculation about what, exactly, he meant. Was he simply arguing for modernizing the nuclear force, or was he actually calling for more weapons?