Rickards: Why Donald Trump is smarter than Joe Scarborough

Joe Scarborough, co-host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, recently revealed a conversation with an unnamed foreign policy expert who had met with Donald Trump. Reportedly Trump asked the expert several times about the conditions under which the U.S. might use nuclear weapons. Trump asked, “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?” according to Scarborough’s source.

This revelation was done in dark overtones and immediately followed-up with incredulity and tut-tutting from other guests and panelists. Co-host Mika Brzezinski solemnly said, “Be careful America, and be careful Republican leaders, your party is blowing up;” (probably no pun intended). Then she advised Republicans to, “Pull your endorsements.” (You can view the video clip here: http://www.cnbc.com/2016/08/03/trump-asks-why-us-cant-use-nukes-msnbcs-joe-scarborough-reports.html).

This comes in the wake of an earlier Town Hall with Trump and Chris Matthews in which Matthews said, “I have been trying to think of how we could conceivably use a nuclear weapon in the Middle East,” and asked “why put it on the table?” Matthews browbeat Trump about this, but Trump said he wouldn’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons. Matthews then said, “Nobody wants to hear that about an American president.”

Mainstream media heads explode at the mere mention of nukes. Huffington Post called Trump’s reported questions “truly, shocking.” Slate called them “incredibly frightening.” Wired offered their thoughts on the “ethics of deploying nuclear weapons on entire civilizations.” For the record, Trump wasn’t talking about all-out nuclear war on an “entire civilization.” He was talking about the selective use of nuclear weapons in certain conditions.

Commentators said this proved Trump was unfit for office and was unbalanced. The idea of having Trump’s fingers anywhere near the nuclear button was already scary to inside-the-beltway types, but these reckless questions proved the point beyond doubt.

Within days of the Scarborough reveal, 50 prominent Republican national security experts signed an open letter saying they could not support Trump and found him “not qualified” for office, and “dangerous”. Whether this was in direct response to Trump’s nuke comments is unclear, but the juxtaposition was unmistakable.

Had Trump finally crossed the line beyond redemption? Actually Trump’s questions were highly intelligent and properly nuanced in light of America’s current nuclear war-fighting strategy.

I’ve studied nuclear strategy since the late 1960s, starting with the game theoretical work of Henry Kissinger and Herman Kahn, and continuing with the arms limitation efforts of Paul Nitze. Americans acquainted with nuclear war-fighting have heard of MAD. That stands for mutually-assured destruction. MAD evolved over the 1950s and 1960s as a way to create a stable equilibrium in the nuclear arms race.

When nuclear weapons were first deployed, there was a view that a first-strike by either the U.S. or the Soviet Union (now Russia) could incapacitate the opponent and win the Cold War. This view led to a highly unstable situation; there was continual pressure to attack before being attacked.

As a result, each side built up their nuclear armaments to create a “second-strike” capability. That way if you were attacked first, enough weapons would survive to strike back. This second-strike would deter the first-strike since the attacker had as much to lose as the victim.

The problem with second-strike theory was that each side continued to build first-strike weapons, especially multiple warhead missiles, to eradicate the second-strike capability. Each side also built more weapons to increase second-strike survivability. The line between first-strike and second-strike weapons became blurred. The nuclear arms race was spinning out of control

Eventually arms limitation treaties and the existence of the nuclear triad (land, air, and sea launch capability) established a balance of terror. Each side had enough weaponry to survive a first-strike, and the parties agreed not to expand those capabilities. An ad hoc combination of game theory, armaments, and treaties resulted in the stable equilibrium of mutual assured destruction, which has kept the nuclear genie in the bottle for forty years. This was the crowning strategic achievement of the Cold War.

This begs the question: if you have a stable balance with second-strike capability, why not renounce a first-strike? This pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons has already been made by China and India. The Soviet Union also made the pledge and pressured the U.S. to do likewise, although Russia reversed that pledge in 1993. Today Russia and NATO both reserve the right to the first use of nukes.

The U.S. also reserved the right to first use until 2010. That year, President Obama announced a partial “no first use” policy. He said America would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers that agreed to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and honored their obligations. However, a potential first use policy was retained against nuclear powers such as Russia and China, and non-compliant states like Iran.

This brings us to Donald Trump’s questions. Asking how and why nuclear weapons might be used shows a subtle appreciation of U.S. military doctrine. It’s a critical question. Trump should be applauded for asking it.

When might the U.S. launch a first-strike? Consider this scenario. The regime in Iran has an apocalyptic theology based on the return of the “Hidden Iman” who will lead the world into an age of universal peace following a phase of death and destruction. A course of action that creates mass death is viewed by Iran as hastening the longed-for return of the Hidden Iman.

In addition to its uranium enrichment, Iran may have pursued biological warfare. This is far easier to do, and more difficult to detect than uranium enrichment.

What if U.S. intelligence learned that Iran planned the imminent release of a highly contagious deadly virus on U.S. soil? This virus has been secretly created by Iran in hardened laboratories buried deep underground where conventional weaponry cannot penetrate. Assume U.S. intelligence assessed that 50 million Americans would die before effective quarantines and treatments could be put in place.

The virus will be transported from its current underground hot zone to the U.S. by an unidentified courier on a commercial airline. The release of the virus is imminent, possibly within days. The hardened laboratory makes it impenetrable for special operations. A division strength attack would be needed, but there’s no time to launch a Marine Expeditionary force before the virus is released.

The President is in the situation room with the National Security Council, joined by video with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the CIA, and medical experts. The President is advised that a surgical strike using low-yield tactical nuclear weapons would obliterate the underground laboratory and render the virus harmless before it can be released. There are no other timely or effective military options.

What would you do? I know what I would do. I’d use tactical nuclear weapons and save 50 million American lives. This choice is not entirely hypothetical. President Truman faced the same decision in ending World War II. The War Department estimated 500,000 Allied casualties as a result of an amphibious invasion of Kyushu, the start of an attack on the main home islands of the Japanese Empire. The Japanese had established a pattern of fighting to the death in Okinawa and elsewhere. Counting Japanese casualties, a death toll of a million or more is not far-fetched. Truman ordered a strike with atomic weapons that quickly ended the war.

These scenarios are not pleasant to think about. Herman Kahn’s classic work on the topic is called “Thinking About the Unthinkable.” But, serious strategists have engaged in this work for decades. Donald Trump’s question about how and why the U.S. might use nuclear weapons is a serious effort to understand a critical issue, and entirely consistent with U.S. strategic doctrine.

I would be more troubled by a potential Commander-in-Chief who was not asking these questions, than one who was. Trump gets ridiculed for not being inquisitive, and then gets ridiculed again when he is. The media can’t have it both ways.

In their rush to mock Trump, commentators like Scarborough reveal their own lack of acquaintance with the issues, not to mention their obvious bias. I doubt Scarborough’s sidekick, Mika Brzezinski, could have helped him avoid embarrassing himself, but her father certainly could have. Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a Professor of International Relations at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies where strategic thinkers like Hal Sonnenfeldt (known as “Kissinger’s Kissinger”), and Robert W. Tucker taught for decades. I know, I was their student. At least one Brzezinski would have understood that Trump asked the right question.

James Rickards is the editor of Strategic Intelligence, a monthly newsletter, and the New York Times best selling author of The Death of Money, and The New Case for Gold.

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  • Wayne

    Circles back to the insidious destructiveness of political correctness. We can no longer think, let alone discuss openly, “unthinkable”, yet very possible scenarios.

    • sock_puppet

      PC culture has created a generation of intellectual eunuchs. When not thinking becomes more expensive (read, Gov runs out of other people’s $$ for handouts) it’ll quickly make a comeback.

      • johnny_noir

        Please. No one even knows what the term ‘political correctness’ means anymore. It used to mean a clumsy term with the intent to avoid at stigma associated with it. This is not my example (George Carlin’s), the word ‘cripple’. This word was replaced by ‘handicapped’ and more recently ‘handicapible’. ‘Political Correctness’ has become a derisive term to describe anything someone doesn’t agree with or opinions that are less than progressive (i.e. racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc.). ‘PC’ means nothing at this point. It’s just term to beat those with which either you don’t agree or don’t understand. Stop being a coward and say what you really mean.

        • Wayne

          If I knew what you meant, I would consider responding.

          • johnny_noir

            I think you just did.

          • Wayne


        • sock_puppet

          Here, lemme break it down just for you.

          “Stoopid people r stoopid bcuz PC makes dem dumberer”.

          Make sense now?

          • johnny_noir

            I think you just proved my point. A sock puppet being a thing without a brain that needs someone hand up their butt directing their behavior. Do you have any of your own opinions or do you just repeat what you’re told? Do they write them down for you. Oh, I forgot sock puppets can’t read. Opinions require you to think, and not to be only a socket puppet.

          • alex parkhurst

            PC is Cultural Marxism developed by the Frankfurt Schule in conjunction w/ Dutschke’s and Gramschi’s March through the institutions. Obama, Clinton and their advisors know this very well.
            Carlin? He said, “Political correctness is fascism masquerading as manners.”

          • johnny_noir

            Let me burst your bubble, there are no real philosopher kings. If you miss what I’m saying it’s that no school of philosophy has risen through the ranks to lead, well, anyone. Yes, sure there have been many governments that called themselves Marxist or Communist, but those are just names. Names are a form of propaganda. It’s behavior that counts. They behave like totalitarian regimes with a central strong man or small group with absolute power. Marxism/Communism can’t exist because people are people. Read Animal Farm or maybe just remember the social dynamics of the average school yard. There are the bullies and those who are bullied. It doesn’t change much just because the participants get taller or their actions more subtle. If your going to someone as the progenitor of political correctness, why not blame the Catholicism? They have this thing called the Golden Rule where they believe in the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself which just might be “fascism masquerading as manners”. Hey, but thanks for outing yourself as a conspiracy theorist.

    • Eleanor Cummings

      Exactly. Trump is NOT advocating using nuclear weapons! He was questioning “what if’s”. Can’t people read or listen? This is a question ANY serious candidate for POTUS should ask BEFORE taking office! If it was you, wouldn’t you like to know ahead of time what you may have to face down the line?

    • I think this personally goes beyond just the pc nonsense many seem to focus in on. It has nothing at all to do with that. We live in a world of limitations whether we like it or not. And there is a big difference between having a right to do something and being responsible enough to do it. Same thing with people who conceal carry. Just because you are legally able and have the right to carry a gun does not mean you have the level of responsibility to wield it.

      • Wayne

        The term responsible is subjective and depends on who’s defining it.

        • Responsible is not a subjective term at all. I think it is one of those terms that is or is not. For example, I would hardly think that anyone would consider someone playing with their gun while its loaded responsible. At the same time if someone decides that they wanted to help a situation where terrorists were trying to take over a building and someone started shooting regardless of innocent bystanders around, that would also be irresponsible. The only subjective nature comes from what some might consider themselves doing right versus wrong in the eyes of society.

          • Wayne

            Therefore, the word responsibility can be mathematically proven or disproven ? I disagree and understood every point you made above to be pure subjectivity. I don’t have a problem with analysis, conjecture, opinions, values, beliefs, feelings or perceptions of right and wrong so long as they are acknowledged as such. If you can not support arguments by data or empirical facts then by definition you are in the realm of subjectivity.

          • And yet in talking about being responsible, we as a society deem it to be so by a collection of those same values and opinions you mention. If someone drives drunk that is deemed irresponsible due to lives at stake even if no one dies in the act. The level in which it’s applied is the measure in which provides the data you seek.

          • Wayne

            I would agree that driving drunk is a good example of irresponsibility. That’s “my” opinion.

  • bob

    I pray DT was nuanced as you suggest. However he has given sufficient fodder to the media is his Trump branding campaign that such reacting to horrific dilemmas is not surprising. Maybe the danger lies in his seemingly inability to manage the message beyond sound bites? Was his choice to raise the nuclear discussion not a poor choice? If he did not comprehend the potential backlash then he maybe unfit as the US President to deal with such grave matters when he is perceived to have his finger on the nuclear “button”?
    His business career suggests he is a quick and big risk taker. If Trump does become president, I pray there are compensating controls on his decision processes.

  • noifandsor

    Joe comes from the DNA as Bill Clinton. What was the age of his daughters when he stopped bathing them?

  • drakejr

    I don’t think you need to list reasons. Scarborough is a joke.

  • Candy Kay

    Thank you so much for your unbiased article. so little thought is seen in journalism today. your article was very refreshing!

  • JackMarse

    Exactly right JR! Why have nukes if cannot contemplate when to use them in advance? Unfortunately, Killary is driving us towards a nuclear WW3.

    • Meanwhile, while questions are great and knowledge is power, someone not having sufficient knowledge about something so destructive is a problem no matter how you wrap it.

  • John27

    America is dumping Clinton, and the leftist media.


    Very happy to see Rickards weigh in politically. It gives hope that there are still those with influence over the 1% who actually love the country. Contrarily many of those who oppose Trump typically have interest in milking the establishment. Buffet, Blankfein, Scarborough, Blitzer, Ridge, Romney, etc are totally embedded and benefiting from our centralized control, corrupted system. The reason Trump appears so ‘out of place’ is because the place (Washington DC) is so sick. This might be our last chance. Thanks Jim Rickards for your willingness to speak truth when truth is so dangerous.

  • No Left Turns

    Joe is a talking head
    he knows nothing but what’s on the cue card.

  • Kiven Ratterree

    A very well written and level headed view of the situation. When you deal in the kind of circles Trump has dealt with, you always want to know every option and every possibility, and prepare for it. I think this shows remarkable forward thinking and a level of thoughtfulness that is devoid in nearly every mainstream echo chamber thought produced by his enemies.

  • DocileConNoMore

    Poor Joe. The globalist, DNC, Illuminati ‘actors’ had a talk with him and his Trump schmoozing ways. And he thought he was free to speak and run a show all by his own self.

  • qonc1

    When Joe and Mika were touting the Donald on their show, I stopped watching and apparently, so did many others. I used to think it was smart TV, then their constant fawning and praise of Trump totally turned me off. Now, they are pulling a 180 in recent weeks and trying to regain veiwers. Hey Joe and Mika: Did you every hear that it takes a lifetime to create a good reputation and a minute to destroy one?

    • Yeah, that was a disturbing suck up to ratings when Trump was basking in the early limelight shortly after starting his long, strange trip down the escalator. Especially the off-air open mike where they were caught schmoozing with Trump between segments, literally asking him (maybe through the producer’s prodding) what questions they should ask next.

      Thanks to Harry Shearer for bringing that unprofessional (and apparently not uncommon) behavior to light. Here’s a piece theorizing on how it may have come to public attention and includes a link to the recording. http://bit.ly/1QwENEw

  • The concern with Trump has been his temperament and judgment, besides the insatiable ego, as he proves on an almost daily basis. When he exposed himself months ago as being completely clueless about what the nuclear triad even was (land, sea and air deployment), it set off alarms by those in the loop that this guy was not ready for prime time.

    Sorry, but Being Commander in Chief is simply not an entry level position and orders of magnitude more complex and nuanced than rolling the dice in the casino and hotel business. If or when international relations go bust, there is no Chapter 11 to bail us out.

  • Wyatt Ever

    Anyone that can imagine a universe in which the Donald is capable of “…a subtle appreciation of U.S. military doctrine.” should turn his talents to fiction. As the editor of a monthly newsletter, one might be tempted to accuse this person of sacrificing all professional integrity merely to pen an article that gets some attention.


    What’s funny is watching apologists for ‘normality’ explain the risks of Trump. As if there’s such a valuable status quo worth protecting. Hey geniuses… clue; the establishment and it’s centralized power structure is what’s dangerous. The fact that you can’t see this is comical if not pathetic. Trump will drain the DC swamps and rats from both parties will go running. Rickards has more understanding of reality than the last 3 administration cabinets. He makes entirely accurate points regarding Iran and it’s ultimate mission to go nuclear and the best way to address it. Face it, Trump is simply ahead of the times. Goldwater redux.

    • Wayne

      I agree 100% with the understanding that Trump only represents a hope not an assurance. Which for me provides ample reason to support him. The enemy of good is perfection and that appears to be what voters are unable to intellectually process. Additionally, Trump supporters either have a broad historical context of what we have become as a country and where we are headed OR they have personal skin in the game (perhaps they live in a border town).

  • kgbgb

    Good article.

    It ought to be completely obvious that a presidential candidate should be thinking through hypothetical situations that might threaten their country. (My fear about Hilary is that she doesn’t. She appears to think that the USA is so powerful that it can dictate to all other countries without fear of retaliation, while Trump believes in making mutually beneficial deals. As a European, I am genuinely terrified that a new Clinton presidency would lead to World War III. Americans should be too; there is no way that the third one would be confined to the Old World like the last two.)

    One small point of fact, though. The claim that the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs saved lives by shortening WWII is widely believed, but false. The Japanese war cabinet that made the decision to surrender was not influenced at all by Nagasaki, as news of it only reached them at the end of the meeting. They knew Hiroshima had been destroyed, and that the armaments used were unusual, but paid no special attention to that particular city in their discussions, as whole cities were being destroyed on most nights at that stage of the war.

    The decision was actually forced by the entry of the Soviet Union into the war, and the Russians’ astonishingly fast liberation of Manchuria. (See “August Storm” by David M Glantz, of the Combat Studies Institute, Fort Levensworth, available on line.) This closed off both of the strategies that the Japanese had hoped to use to negotiate a tolerable conditional surrender, rather than the unconditional one the Americans were demanding. The diplomatic option of getting Stalin to act as an intermediary was gone, as he was now a belligerent. The military option of imposing unacceptable losses on an army invading from the South was gone, as the North was wide open to a Russian invasion. This has been well-explained by Ward Wilson in Foreign Policy – http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/30/the-bomb-didnt-beat-japan-stalin-did/

    The conventional story was propagated after the event as it was politically convenient for both the Japanese and the Americans. The Japanese could salve their pride by telling themselves that they had been forced to surrender by a completely extraordinary development, which they couldn’t conceivably have foreseen and allowed for in their planning. The Americans could claim the victory over Japan exclusively for themselves, rather than sharing it with the Soviet Union, and thus they got to occupy the whole of Japan, and turn it into an American client.

  • Liberty First

    My respect for Rickards grows with each day…amazing intellect.

  • alex pez

    Using low-yield tactical nuclear weapons will open The Pandora Box. Entirely.

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