In his January call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump condemned a 2010 nuclear arms-reduction treaty as a bad deal for the U.S., Reuters reported Thursday.
Asked by Putin about the possibility of extending the treaty capping U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads — known as New START — Trump reportedly paused to ask his aides what the treaty was, two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official briefed on the call told Reuters.
He then told Putin it was one of a number of bad deals negotiated by former President Barack Obama and that it favored Russia, before launching into a conversation about his own popularity, according to the sources.
The official White House summary of the Jan. 28 call does not mention any discussion of the agreement.
The White House has disputed the notion that Trump didn’t know what the treaty was, saying that Trump was familiar with it but was asking his team for an “opinion” on the subject.
“It wasn’t like he didn’t know what was being said,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer told a group of reporters Thursday afternoon. “He wanted an opinion on something, which is … very different.”
The treaty gives both countries until 2018 to cut their strategic nuclear missile launchers to 1,550 — the lowest number in decades — and limits numbers of land- and submarine-launched missiles and heavy bombers.
Trump on the campaign trail had denounced the treaty, which he referred to as the “START Up” treaty. He claimed that the Obama-era deal had allowed Russia to expand its nuclear capabilities while the U.S. could not.
“They expanded and we didn’t, 1,800 nuclear warheads,” he argued during the final presidential debate in October.
“Let me tell you, Putin has outsmarted … Obama at every single step of the way. Take a look at the ‘START Up’ that they signed. The Russians have said, according to many, many reports, I can’t believe they allowed us to do this. They create warheads, and we can’t.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearings that he supported the deal, and that it was important for the U.S. to “hold them accountable to commitments made under the New START and also ensure our accountability as well.”
Democrats fired back on Trump’s comments on Thursday.
“New START has unquestionably made our country safer, an opinion widely shared by national security experts on both sides of the aisle,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said in a statement. “The administration desperately needs to develop a consistent position on nuclear policy, especially before engaging in further conversations with world leaders.”
But Trump’s skepticism of the agreement is not without precedent.
The deal, ratified 71-26 in 2010, was somewhat controversial at the time despite the public support of former President George H. W. Bush and a number of former Republican Secretaries of State.
At the time, an affiliate of the Heritage Foundation took the lead in opposing the ratification of the deal. Then Heritage President Ed Feulner argued that while the deal would “definitely” reduce America’s nuclear capacity, Russia would be able to exploit certain loopholes in the language of the deal to avoid trimming their own arsenal.
His arguments were apparently persuasive
: then-presidential hopeful Mitt Romney announced his opposition to the deal and some supporters of the deal — like former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D. )— at the time bemoaned the Heritage efforts as “serious enough to silence some Republican senators.”
The deal, which expires in 2021, can be extended by mutual agreement for another five years, but absent an extension or a new agreement, both countries will be free to expand their arsenals.
Trump in December sparked fears that he would touch off a new arms race between the two nations, when he tweeted that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The next day, he reportedly told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that he was open to engaging in an “arms race” with other countries, vowing to “outlast” them.
The reported details from his call with Putin also stoke fears that Trump is inadequately prepared to discuss policy with heads of state, with Reuters reporting he did not receive the kind of briefing normally given to presidents prior to his call with Putin.
It is unknown if Trump received a briefing from national security adviser Michael Flynn. He did not receive a briefing from either Russia experts with the National Security Council or intelligence agencies, according to two of the sources.
This story was last updated at 4:58 p.m.