WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President-elect Donald Trump on Friday welcomed a new nuclear weapons arms race, vowing in an off-camera interview with a television host that the United States would “outmatch” any adversary. The comment came one day after he said in a post on Twitter that the United States should “strengthen and expand” its own nuclear capabilities.
The president-elect escalated his comments about nuclear weapons with the show of bravado during a brief, off-air telephone conversation from his estate in Florida, according to Mika Brzezinski, the co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
“Let it be an arms race,” Trump said, according to Brzezinski, who described her conversation with the president-elect on the morning news program moments later. Trump added: “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
A few hours after those comments, Trump released a letter he said he received on Dec. 15 from President Vladimir Putin in which the Russian leader offered holiday greetings and urged a “constructive and pragmatic manner” among leaders in both countries.
“Relations between Russia and the U.S. remain an important factor in ensuring stability and security of the modern world,” Putin wrote in the letter. “I hope that after you assume the position of the president of the United States of America we will be able — by acting in a constructive and pragmatic manner — to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation in different areas as well as bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level.”
In his statement, Trump called it “a very nice letter” and said “his thoughts are so correct. I hope both sides are able to live up to these thoughts, and we do not have to travel an alternate path.”
Trump did not elaborate on what he meant by an “alternate path.” But despite his praise of Putin’s letter, the president-elect’s comments Friday about nuclear weapons appear to reflect a willingness on his part to restart the costly and dangerous Cold War-era weapons competition between the United States and the old Soviet Union. Both nations have sought for decades to reverse that buildup of huge nuclear arsenals.
The comments Friday and the Twitter post Thursday appeared to be meant specifically for Putin, who had said in an end-of-the-year speech to his military this week that Russia must bolster its nuclear capabilities to “reliably penetrate” missile defense systems of any other nation.
The Russian leader, who spoke during a lengthy news conference in Moscow on Friday, said the Kremlin would continue to modernize its armed forces, including nuclear weapons. Russia is not seeking a new arms race or to develop new nuclear warheads, he said, but is instead seeking ways to improve its armaments so that they could pierce U.S. missile defenses.
Trump, who spent Friday morning playing golf with Tiger Woods at Trump International Golf Club, has not provided any details about his plans regarding an expansion of nuclear abilities, but Sean Spicer, the incoming press secretary for Trump’s administration, said earlier on the “Morning Joe” program that the president-elect’s Twitter post about nuclear weapons was intended to send a message to U.S. adversaries around the world.
Asked if Trump’s post on Twitter was a response to Putin’s speech to the military, Spicer said, “I think it’s putting every nation on notice that the United States is going to reassert its position in the globe.”
Spicer added: “Other countries need to understand that if they expand their nuclear capabilities, this president is not going to sit back, he’s going to act.”
After Trump’s comments to Brzezinski, Spicer appeared on NBC’s “Today” program and said the president-elect was trying to avoid an arms race by signaling to the Russians and other adversaries that he was willing to match any nuclear expansion they might try.
When Matt Lauer, the show’s co-host, suggested that matching an adversary’s expansion was the definition of an arms race, Spicer insisted that would not happen while Trump was president.
“There’s not going to be,” Spicer said. “Because he’s going to ensure that other countries get the message that he’s not going to sit back and allow that. And what’s going to happen is, they will come to their senses and we will all be just fine.”
Friday morning’s comments by Trump and Spicer about the president-elect’s intentions regarding the nuclear arsenal stood in contrast to what other aides said late Thursday evening. Jason Miller, the incoming communications director, said in a statement that Trump’s post on Twitter was about the spread of nuclear capabilities around the globe.
“President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes,” Miller wrote.