Donald Trump’s Nuclear Ignorance

Donald Trump displays some appalling ignorance about an important part of America's military, but his supporters are unlikely to care.

Donald Trump Shrug

Perhaps one of the most revealing moments during last night’s debate came when radio host Hugh Hewitt, who was among the questioners for the second time this cycle and seemed to receive more air time than he did during September’s debate, asked Donald Trump about the components of America’s nuclear arsenal:

Donald Trump had an overall positive assessment of the strategic value of nuclear weapons for the US during the Tuesday-night Republican presidential debate.

CNN debate moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump about what Hewitt characterized as one of the most important responsibilities of any US president: the management of the US’s nuclear arsenal, which consists of some 4,717 warheads.

Hewitt asked if Trump had “a priority among the nuclear triad” — a catch-all phrase for the three-tiered aircraft, land-based missile, and sea-based system for delivering nuclear weapons.

The “triad” allows the US to launch nuclear weapons even if one element of the “triad” is disabled, or in the event of a preemptive nuclear attack on the US. The US is currently undertaking an estimated $355 billion nuclear modernization effort that will replace nuclear-capable missiles and upgrade sea-based platforms, like nuclear-equipped submarines.

Trump began his answer by broadly arguing for his own sound judgment, claiming that he opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and emphasizing “that we need someone we can absolutely trust who’s really responsible, who really knows what he or she is doing.”

Trump emphasized that “nuclear changes the whole ballgame,” implying that  ”the power is so massive” that the US can maintain its security without having to forward deploy its military.

But Hewitt didn’t ask Trump about the strategic benefits of nuclear weapons, or his suitability for managing the US nuclear arsenal. Rather, he was asking which element of the “triad” Trump believed was most important to maintain, querying him on whether he had a “priority” among the three legs of the triad.

Here’s the transcript of the exchange between Hewitt and Rubio, as well as the end of the exchange where Hewitt turns to Rubio after Trump was, well, stumped:

HEWITT: Mr. Trump — Dr. Carson just referenced the single most important job of the president, the command and the control and the care of the military forces. The triad, the missiles and submarines are aging out. It’s an executive order. What is your priority?

TRUMP: Well first of all, I think we absolutely need someone we can trust who is total responsibility who knows what he or she is doing that is so powerful and so important. And one of the things that I’m frankly most proud of is that in 2003, 2004, I was against going into Iraq because you are going to destabilize the Middle East. I called it, I called it very strongly and it was very important. But we have to be extremely vigilant and careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ball game. I would have said get out of Syria, get out. If we didn’t have the power of weaponry today, the power is so massive that we can’t just leave areas that 50 years ago or 75 years ago we wouldn’t care, it was hand-to-hand combat. The biggest problem this world has today is not President Obama with global warming, which is inconceivable, this is what he’s saying. The biggest problem we have today is nuclear proliferation anding are some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. In my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.

HEWITT: Of the three legs of the triad though, do you have a priority?

TRUMP: For me, nuclear, the power, the devastation, is very important to me.

HEWITT: Senator Rubio, do you have a response?

RUBIO: I do. Well first, let’s explain to people at home what the triad is. Maybe a lot of people have not heard that terminology before. The triad is the ability of the United States to conduct nuclear attacks using airplanes, using missiles launched from silos from the ground and from our nuclear subs. And it’s important, all three are critical. It gives us the ability at deterrence. Now, some are more critical than others. For example, the submarines. And that’s the Ohio class submarine that needs to be modernized. The air component also needs to be modernized. The B-52, as someone earlier pointed out, is an outdated model that was flown by the grandparents of the people flying it now. And we need a serious modernization program of our [cyber launch?] missiles as well.

Paul Mirengoff at Power Line called the moment Trump’s “Nuclear Howler.” Kevin Drum referred to it as the worst answer of the night. And Rolling Stone’s Jesse Berney calls Trump response “terrifying.” This is a question that Hewitt has asked to essentially every candidate for President that he has had on the show to date. Some may call this a “gotcha” question, but when asked about it in the past Hewitt has said that he uses it as a way to test how well prepared a candidate when it comes to having at least some basic knowledge of the duties that a President would have. From that point of view, there is arguably no more important duty than the President’s duty as Commander in Chief, of which maintaining, for the time being, a credible and powerful nuclear detterrent has been an important part for the better part of the last sixty-five years at least. From that perspective one would think that someone running for President would have done enough homework to have a basic understanding of what the issue is all about. Trump’s answer indicates that he clearly doesn’t, and that fact becomes even more significant when one considers that Hewitt asked Trump the same question in August and Trump gave essentially the same rambling, substance-free response.

Jonah Goldberg, for one, was not impressed:

[Trump’s] answer on the nuclear triad was an embarrassment. Yes, yes, lots of people don’t know what the nuclear triad is. But most people aren’t running for president. Moreover, he clearly couldn’t even bother to listen to Hugh Hewitt’s hints about what it was.

Also, dont’ forget that Hewitt asked him about the nuclear triad at great length in August, and he couldn’t answer it then, either. Call me crazy, but someone running for president should know enough about the nuclear triad to at least a fake a plausible response. 

One could perhaps excuse Trump for being unprepared when asked about an issue that most Americans probably don’t have much knowledge of themselves for the first time, even though anyone of Trump’s advisers who may have prepared him for the interview would surely have realized fairly quickly that this is a question that Hewitt asks on a fairly regular basis. After that first time, though, and given the fact that Hewitt has been included in both of CNN’s Republican Debates and is likely to be part of any future CNN-aired debates during this cycle, any rational campaign would have prepared their candidate to give a better answer than what Trump spouted out last night. Trump’s campaign isn’t any ordinary campaign, though, and one has to wonder if Donald Trump has ever done any real preparation for any of these debates since his rhetoric, statements, and demeanor have been virtually identical for all five of them. Nonetheless, a response like this during what everyone knew would be a debate that focused primarily if not exclusively on national security issues is something that one would think would stand out for Republican voters concerned about national security issues.

In reality, Trump’s incoherent response to this question is unlikely to damage him any more than anything else that has happened during the course of this campaign. His supporters will see the question itself as an irrelevant “gotcha” question notwithstanding the fact that it concerns one of the fundamental responsibilities of the President of the United States. The people on the right inclined to care about it, on the other hand, have largely already written Trump off and are among the groups that seem to be gathering around Marco Rubio as their preferred candidate.

Aside from that, though, it strikes me that this response goes to the core of one of the many issues with Donald Trump, namely the fact that even more than almost any other candidate we’ve seen in recent years, Donald Trump is a man utterly free of substance. Watching a Donald Trump stump speech, listening to one of his interviews on the cable news networks, or watching him in one of these debates, one sees it all very clearly. In addition to the insults and the attacks against fellow candidates, the poisonous rhetoric against Mexicans, Muslims, and others, and an obsession with his position in the polls that is positively egomaniacal, one quickly realizes that Trump never talks substance. He never explains how he’s going to get something done, only that he will get it done. He doesn’t go into detail about his policy proposals, to the extent he has made any, and he just repeats the same lines about how he’ll “Make America Great Again” and other crowd-pleasing catch phrases that are essentially meaningless. Yes, every candidate for any office engages in at least some of this rhetoric at some point, but I’ve never seen any candidate for office, especially the Presidency, who does it as exclusively as Trump does. The most bizarre part for me at least is Trump’s continued obsession with poll numbers to the exclusion of almost anything else. He mentions them all the time during interviews and stump speeches, and they came up several times during the night last night as if it was sufficient for Trump to answer any question simply by saying he’s leading in the polls. For those of us who have grown up watching Trump since the early 80s because we lived in the New York Tri-State area, Trump’s obsession with his personal standing is nothing new, of course, but it is utterly bizarre to see it in a politician and it reveals a kind of self-obsession that makes one wonder if he is psychologically fit to be President of the United States.

As I said, none of this is likely to harm Trump’s standing with his supporters, who seem to have developed a personal bond with him that is going to be hard for other candidates to break, but it doesn’t say much of anything good about the state of our political culture.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    Well, Doug, to be eminently fair, Trump does have an answer to the question of how he’ll get things done: He’ll “hire really good people.” This reminds me of the time I told my 3-year-old nephew about a bathroom plumbing problem I had. His response: “Well, tell Grandpa. He’ll take care of it.” I mean, it’s adorable coming from a 3-year-old, but Trump is, you should pardon the expression, 69.

    But you’re right. His supporters don’t care, and yes, they regard this as a gotcha question.

  2. Pch101 says:

    To be fair, the correct but emotionally unsatisfying answer is to have the Joint Chiefs provide a recommendation to the defense secretary and the president, not for the president to pretend that he knows.

    I don’t expect a real estate developer or law school graduate who spent his entire life giving political speeches to have any worthwhile input about these matters. The idea that Rubio or any of these other clowns are qualified to know is even more reckless than Trump not knowing what the triad is.

  3. J-Dub says:

    I can’t wait for the actual voting to start. I’m curious to see how this plays out.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Trump is too ignorant to understand the question, gave an evasive answer, and his fanboys/girls will love it. Elsewhere in breaking news – Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

  5. Mikey says:

    @Pch101: It’s still pretty basic stuff, though, with which a Presidential candidate should at least be familiar. If he even knew what the “nuclear triad” is, Trump could have answered with your suggestion, but he just did the tap-dance, which indicates he has no knowledge on the topic whatsoever.

    That should be inexcusable considering he got the same question months ago, but Doug’s right, this won’t hurt him at all because his adherents aren’t looking for substance.

  6. Modulo Myself says:

    Trump’s supporters are right. It’s a hilariously dumb question posed by clueless fake nerds who too average to be involved in anything really interesting get into nuclear weapons, the specifics of which they can’t understand. That’s okay though: Hugh Hewitt just loves this year’s Minuteman. He’s no engineer and he doesn’t work at SAC but he has a huge collection of wargames.

  7. Pch101 says:


    It’s still pretty basic stuff, though, with which a Presidential candidate should at least be familiar.

    I’m just not that reassured now that I know that Rubio’s staffers have skimmed Wikipedia or done whatever little else that they have done so that their boss could generate a soundbite during a “debate.”

    So the B-52 has been around for awhile. What does that mean exactly and why is it supposed to be problematic that they were around during grandpappy’s time?

    That sort of glib aside is just playing to ignorance, unless age discrimination against military aircraft is supposed to be a thing. Are we supposed to now trash talk 747s, i.e. the airplane that many of us use to travel and that will be used to carry the next president, because they’ve been around for almost 50 years? I can appreciate that a law school graduate who wouldn’t know an aileron from a hole in the ground needs a meme for his campaign, but we don’t need to be suckered by it.

  8. Modulo Myself says:

    Also, enforced collective ignorance gives Trump a pass on everything. When not one question is asked about climate change, an issue which has on paper united every government in the world, the idea that there are standards involved in being the GOP candidate went out the door.

  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Also, enforced collective ignorance gives Trump a pass on everything. When not one question is asked about climate change, an issue which has on paper united every government in the world, the idea that there are standards involved in being the GOP candidate went out the door.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    Donald Trump is a man utterly free of substance.

    This is in fact, true. However, I see no need to single out Mr. Trump. Every person on that stage proved they do not have even the most basic knowledge required to lead anything…much less a nation like this nation.
    What is fascinating to me is that the dumber you are the better you seem to do with the Republican base. (When you consider Bush 43…it’s no longer a trend, but a defining characteristic)
    This post is about Trumps ignorance, SLT just posted one on Cruz, and everyone knows Carson is bonkers. That’s the three of the four top polling Republican candidates!!! And Rubio is no Rhodes Scholar.
    Trump did say one amazing this I never thought I would hear from a Republican Presidential Candidate:

    “We have spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that frankly if they were there and if we could have spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems, our airports and all the other problems we have we would have been a lot better off I can tell you that right now. We have done a tremendous disservice not only to the Middle East but to humanity, the people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away and for what? It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion.”

    That one paragraph dis-qualifies all of the Republican Party.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    What’s scary is that even though he was asked about this before, Trump doesn’t seem to have even bothered to find out what the nuclear triad is. (My own reaction is that the whole thing is like a three-legged stool. You don’t want to cut off any of the legs. Engineering redundancy, if nothing else. And yeah, if I were POTUS I’d check with the Joint Chiefs and see what they would recommend.)

    Does Trump know anything about stuff that doesn’t involve telling everyone how wonderful he is?

  12. Mikey says:

    @Pch101: I figured Rubio knew via his experience in the Senate and committee assignments.

    Speaking of old airframes, I did my USAF Reserve time in units that flew the KC-135 refueler. I don’t think anyone–pilots, crew, maintenance, support, whoever–in the unit was older than the airframes. But the USAF has kept them updated, with new engines, avionics, a “glass cockpit” and such, and they still fly thousands of sorties per year in support of Air Force operations worldwide.

    And of course every grunt’s favorite airplane, the A-10, has been in service for nearly 40 years. The newest of them is 32. The Air Force keeps trying to get rid of it, but it keeps on proving its usefulness.

    Anyway, I digress. I just like talking about airplanes.

  13. CSK says:

    OT, but the first Freddy Gray trial (that of Porter) has ended in a mistrial. Jurors were hopelessly deadlocked.

  14. Pete S says:

    @Pch101: Of course, you are right, the president should get input from the Joint Chiefs. But there is no evidence in his answer that he even understood the question and would be able to solicit opinions from the Joint Chiefs, or even know who to ask.

  15. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    No, he doesn’t, and it doesn’t matter to his fans. Just the same as with Sarah Palin. Her fans didn’t care how little she knew about foreign or domestic policy. She said things they wanted to hear. That’s all it takes.

  16. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: One of the lessons I’ve (painfully) learned through life is knowing what your assumptions are is very important.

    Reality often has a very nasty way of showing you that it exists.

    I’m not sure that either Trump or Palin even realize that there’s a reality out there. As far as they’re concerned, they can make up whatever they want in their mind, and surprise, that’s how things are. They haven’t ever run into a situation that has taught them “NO your imaginations are not real”

  17. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist:

    They haven’t ever run into a situation that has taught them “NO your imaginations are not real”

    They live to the max the Mythbusters axiom: “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”

    They just don’t seem to get that the Mythbusters were joking.

  18. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    That’s because–and this is especially true of Trump–they live in universes of their own creation. If it doesn’t exist in Donaldworld, it doesn’t exist. Palin, I think, might have learned a few lessons over the past few years, as witness her comment the other night that she didn’t think any of the Republican candidates would want her endorsement. She didn’t say it in an angry or self-pitying way, for which I commend her. But, given that the remark was made with a bit of humor and self-deprecation, it shows she might have learned a little bit.

    Trump, I think, is so impervious to reality and so fantastically lacking in self-knowledge and self-awareness that he’ll never learn anything. Maybe this is the secret to being the master manipulator that he is.

  19. Pch101 says:

    @Pete S:

    But there is no evidence in his answer that he (Trump) even understood the question and would be able to solicit opinions from the Joint Chiefs, or even know who to ask.

    I didn’t defend Trump in any way, shape or form. I’m just noting that Rubio’s feigned knowledge is in many respects worse than Trump’s ignorance because (a) his talking points about aging aircraft make it abundantly clear that Rubio is either pandering or else doesn’t know what he’s talking about and (b) Americans should know better than to expect the American CEO to know every detail about everything — memorizing talking points does not qualify one to be president. The guy is supposed to lead the country, not be the winner of Trivial Pursuit.

    A president should be able to describe his strategic vision to his stakeholders and hire the right people, not pretend to be an all-knowing strong man. Someone who overestimates his own capabilities is a greater threat than one who knows little but acknowledges his limitations.

  20. grumpy realist says:

    Looks like The Donald has been getting pounded by Scotland as well….

  21. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Well, that was a delightful read. I wonder what his response will be? To call them a country full of losers?

    Trump’s fan club will either ignore it or join Trump in denigrating the Scots. And it will never occur to them that an oaf who goes around alienating entire countries probably lacks the most rudimentary diplomatic skills to be president.

  22. James P says:

    It’s not clear whether he knew or not, but who cares? To quote Hillary, what difference does it make?

    The military who will execute the order knows.

    The bottom line is would a putative president Trump be willing to use nukes against our enemies – perhaps nuke Mecca?

    My guess is that Trump would have the testicular fortitude to stick it to those camel jockeys by nuking Mecca.

    A guy like Lindsey Grahamnesty probably knows what the triad is but he’s too much of a wimp to nail those camel jockeys. Trump would.

    You people hate because you know he damn well means what he says.

    He will build the wall – he will deport the crimigrants – he will keep the Muslims out. With Trump it’s not just talk. That’s why he’s popular.

    Trump wouldn’t be saying these things if he didn’t think he would find a receptive audience in the GOP primary electorate. That’s why he’s leading! 🙂

  23. James P says:

    @C. Clavin:

    rump. Every person on that stage proved they do not have even the most basic knowledge required to lead anything

    What were Harrison J Bounel’s qualifications to lead anything? That didn’t stop you from voting for a half wit community organizer?

    Bounel is not qualified to run a lemonade stand. Without affirmative action that nitwit Alinskyite couldn’t have even gotten into community college.

  24. grumpy realist says:

    Yoo-hoo, Doug? Troll spill on Aisle Two.

  25. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    The people on the right inclined to care about it, on the other hand, have largely already written Trump off and are among the groups that seem to be gathering around Marco Rubio as their preferred candidate.

    In all honesty I’m not sure if it was that much more embarrassing than answering the question “do you have a priority among the three” with “all of them” 😛

  26. Pch101 says:

    @James P:

    I do hope that you’re using the sarcasm font.

  27. jewelbomb says:

    @James P: Yeah, dude. I’m pretty sure that the foreign policy opinion of a guy who ironically drops the phrase “camel jockey” twice in a single comment can be totally ignored at no great loss.

  28. Kylopod says:

    This just in: Trump’s 7th grade chemistry teacher releases a report stating that Trump will be “the most scientifically informed president in history.”

  29. MBunge says:

    This whole Trump thing is turning into a big societal lesson on “Standards and Why They are Important.”

    George W. Bush was so stunningly unprepared for the job of President that his own supporters tacitly acknowledged it. But now it’s supposed to matter when it comes to Trump?


  30. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Pch101: @jewelbomb: oh, haven’t you met our resident troll? He pretends he’s got a Ph.D in economics from the LSE but can’t explain what his thesis topic is or demonstrate any research abilities. He doesn’t know any math, either. We had an epic dissection some time back which left troll guts all over the place and enough of a trail that any future potential employer will probably be glad for the evidence we dug up.

    Ignore him. He’s been banned from OTB and at some point one of the blog hosts will delete his postings.

  31. Bill Lefrak says:

    Not at all surprising, except perhaps to the GEDs, government clerical workers and other dunce demographics who support Trump.

    Trump has spent most of his adult life as a socialite at cocktail parties and art shows in Manhattan. Hell, Trump’s foreign policy “experience” consists of playing “Battleship” back in the 50’s with his wealthy developer father.

    There’s not a single person running this cycle who’s less qualified than Trump, which really is saying something because among those running include a brain dead socialist from a tiny state occupied by potheads and maple syrup growers, a couple of back benching junior U.S. senators and a retired neurosurgeon with zero political, military and public service experience, too. That Trump actually is considered a leading candidate speaks at very loud volumes about the country’s staggering decline.

    The prospects are bleak.

  32. Bob@Youngstown says:

    Want to bet Don thought … ‘triad, isn’t that something from the bible?’

  33. Moosebreath says:

    On the other hand, Trump now has Putin’s endorsement.

    “Then Russia’s own leader — who, moments earlier, had declined on stage to comment on the U.S. presidential election — went a step further, offering compliments for the businessman-reality TV star-politician.

    “He is a bright and talented person without any doubt,” Putin said, according to the TASS news agency.”

    Not sure if this helps or hurts him, as many Republicans have been fantasizing about having a strong leader like Putin.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    @Moosebreath: I was just about to post on that as well. Considering U.S.-Russian relationships, I think what Putin is actually saying is “Trump is the easiest of the candidates to mislead because his ego gets in the way of everything.”

    Putin’s a bastard, but at least he’s an intelligent bastard. Trump would be thumping his chest about how YUUUGE he is while Putin runs rings around him. No thanks.

  35. Moosebreath says:

    @grumpy realist:

    “I think what Putin is actually saying is “Trump is the easiest of the candidates to mislead because his ego gets in the way of everything.”

    Putin’s a bastard, but at least he’s an intelligent bastard. Trump would be thumping his chest about how YUUUGE he is while Putin runs rings around him.”

    I agree, but I suspect most R’s would not.

  36. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:


    From my admittedly brief and limited survey of opinion, the Trumpkins love it (they like Putin because is “:strong”) and the non-Trumpkins are rolling their eyes.

    It’s interesting to see how rabidly the Trumpkins attack Republicans who aren’t enthusiastic about Trump.

  37. C. Clavin says:

    @James P:
    First…I believe you have been banned…you are a trespasser.
    Second…you do not have an MBA…you are a liar.
    Third you seem unable to use the “quote” function…you are technically disadvantaged.
    Fourth…the factual list of Obama’s accomplishments, at least three of them being quite historic in nature and scope, does not square with your partisan view.
    Fifth…just go away.

  38. C. Clavin says:

    @Bill Lefrak:

    maple syrup growers

    You really are a dumb fwck, aren’t you?

  39. grumpy realist says:

    @Bill Lefrak: “

    Maple syrup growers”?



    Dude, have you ever TASTED maple syrup?

    Have you ever even SEEN a maple tree? It’s not like you stick a tap into it and syrup comes out, you know….

  40. C. Clavin says:

    @grumpy realist:
    I’m quite sure Mr. LeFrak has had high fructose corn syrup from a product that uses a nice slave lady as it’s marketing image. He has probably never had maple syrup.