President Trump threatened on Wednesday to use the federal government’s power to pull the TV license of the National Broadcasting Corporation in response to a report by the network’s news division that he suggested a tenfold expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Trump's comments on the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, now at about 4,000 weapons, came up at a Pentagon meeting with top military and national security officials in July, NBC said. The network cited the recollections of three people who were there. Trump was responding to briefing slides that illustrated the steady reduction in the size of the country's stockpile since the 1960's. He indicated he wanted a bigger arsenal, the network said.
Officials at the meeting, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were reported to have voiced surprise at Trump's suggestion and briefly explained the legal and practical restraints on a nuclear buildup, much of which is dictated by international arms control treaties. The officials told NBC that no U.S. nuclear buildup is planned.
After dismissing the NBC account, Trump told reporters he never discussed a tenfold increase, saying it would be "totally unnecessary."
"Right now we have so many nuclear weapons, I want them in perfect condition, perfect shape. That’s the only thing I’ve ever discussed," he said. "I know what we have right now. We won’t need an increase but I want modernization and rehabilitation. It’s gotta be in tip-top shape.”
As a candidate during his run for the White House, Trump was quoted as asking a foreign policy adviser what the point was of having nuclear capability if the U.S. did not use the weapons.
At the moment, he is in the midst of two international disputes involving nuclear weapons. Trump is set this week to refuse certification that Iran is complying with an international pact to curb its international weapons development and has exchanged words with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over Pyongyang's nuclear program.
It was soon after the Pentagon meeting and after Trump had left that Tillerson described the U.S. leader's intelligence in harsh terms, uttering an expletive and calling him a "moron," according to U.S. news accounts. Tillerson has since said he is committed to his job as the top U.S. diplomat and working for Trump, but has not denied that he made the remark.
Trump suggested in recent days that he and Tillerson square off intellectually by each taking IQ tests, with the president saying he has no doubt that he would score higher. The White House said Tuesday that Trump's remarks were meant as a joke.
In Twitter comments, Trump compared NBC's reporting to that of CNN, the cable news network that has often drawn his ire after it aired stories he did not like.
"Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a "tenfold" increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!" Trump wrote. "With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!"
Trump's threat would not be possible, however. NBC, as a national television network, is not subject to licensing. However, individual TV stations affiliated with and owned by NBC are licensed to broadcast in their individual cities and towns.
That did not seem to deter Trump from taking to Twitter again later in the day. "Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!," he tweeted.
In the U.S., freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed. The government's Federal Communications Commission regularly reviews licenses for individual television stations, some of which are owned by the national networks.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said that Trump's assertion that NBC’s license could be challenged "emboldens" other governments "to embrace authoritarian tendencies."