In Tuesday’s presidential debate, Donald Trump was unable to answer radio host and debate panelist Hugh Hewitt’s question about the nuclear triad – the submarines, missile silos, and bombers that comprise the delivery system for America’s nuclear weapons – an issue that, ,as Max Boot noted yesterday, is critical for the next commander-in-chief. Trump first gave a non-responsive 206-word answer and then – after Hewitt repeated the question – gave an 18-word answer reading, in its entirety, as follows: “I think — I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”
Max Boot called Trump’s answer appallingly ignorant, but it was actually even more troubling than that. The question came less than a minute after Dr. Ben Carson, standing next to Trump, had discussed all three elements of the triad. Carson said U.S. forces must be upgraded because “you look at things like our Ohio Class submarines, they’re 25 years old. Our Minuteman 3 missiles – they are 34 years old. Our B-52 bombers – 50 years old.” Moreover, in his initial question, Hewitt had repeated all three elements of the triad for Trump:
Dr. Carson just referenced the single most important job of the president, the command, the control and the care of our nuclear forces. And he mentioned the triad. The B-52s are older than I am. The missiles are old. The submarines are aging out. It’s an executive order. It’s a commander-in-chief decision. What’s your priority among our nuclear triad?
Hewitt has been asking the nuclear triad question all year, posing it to every candidate coming on his radio show, since he considers it one of the most important issues facing the country: a nuclear system on land (missile silos), sea (submarines), and air (manned bombers) has been a longstanding part of U.S. nuclear strategy, but Hewitt questions whether we can continue to afford all three. On November 14, Robert O’Brien, a longtime deputy to John Bolton at the UN, told Hewitt on the air that, “[i]t’s important that our candidates understand the nuclear triad, and that’s something that I think should be a subject at the debate that you co-moderate next month.” Hewitt said he would, because “it’s kind of the essence of being the commander-in-chief.”
In Hewitt’s radio interviews this year, Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker all gave candid and informed answers. Only one candidate couldn’t give any answer at all, much less a thoughtful one, even though he was asked three times during the interview: Donald Trump. Here is the Hewitt-Trump colloquy on August 3:
HH: Now let me ask you about the American nuclear triad. Is it necessary anymore, Donald Trump, is it affordable?
DT: I think one of the most important things that we have to worry about is nuclear generally speaking. The power of nuclear, the power of the weapons that we have today and that is, by the way [86 nonresponsive words omitted about the Iran deal].
HH: Do we need all the three kind of nuclear weapons that we have though?
DT: I think we should have absolutely have – you know we are going to have to build ourselves back up because – I don’t know if you saw that 60 Minute piece about a year ago where our nuclear weapons are so absolute and so outdated, the phones didn’t work, the wires were rotted and frankly to allow that to actually go on television where they are giving tours of places of silos and they are rusting and rotting and I’m Putin and I looking at that I’m saying I’m saying, “Wow these guys don’t have the power we thought they had.”
HH: But do you think we can afford to just update one of the three legs or do we need all three of them like the Cold War?
DT: I think we need massive protection and unfortunately you know the nuclear is the protection … [113 more nonresponsive words omitted].
In other words, Donald Trump was first asked this question – three times – more than four months ago. Hewitt said on the air last month he would be returning to the issue in the coming debate. Ben Carson discussed the issue knowledgeably one minute before Trump was asked it again. Hewitt also explained the triad to Trump in his question, and then asked him the question twice – and still Trump couldn’t answer it, in a debate devoted to national security and foreign policy.
The nuclear triad is a subject with which any candidate serious about making America great again should be conversant. But Trump is not a serious candidate; he just plays one on TV. His answers to Hewitt have been not just appallingly ignorant; they have demonstrated that he has completely ignored, and cannot discuss, a critical issue that goes to the heart of his suitability as a potential commander-in-chief — and which he knew, or should have known, would be asked Tuesday evening.