Before lunchtime Thursday, President-elect Donald Trump said he would expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal, upending a reduction course set by presidents of both parties over the past four decades, and called for the United States to veto a pending U.N. resolution that criticized Israel’s settlements policy.
The policy prescriptions, communicated in morning tweets, followed calls since last month’s election to reconsider the arms-length U.S. relationship with Taiwan and to let China keep an underwater U.S. vessel seized by its navy. Trump declared within hours of this week’s Berlin terrorist attack that it was part of a global Islamic State campaign to “slaughter Christians” and later said it reaffirmed the wisdom of his plans to bar Muslim immigrants.
Late Thursday, Trump suggested in another tweet that the U.S. military’s years-in-the-making plans for a new stealth fighter, Lockheed Martin’s F-35, might be reconsidered, saying he had “asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!”
With weeks to go before he becomes president, Trump has not hesitated to voice his opinions on national security issues of the day and to publicly advise the current president on what to do about them.
Ultimately, the nuclear statement was tempered by a Trump spokesman. And the likely fallout from a tentative decision by the Obama administration to break years of precedent and abstain on the Israel resolution was avoided when Egypt, its sponsor, abruptly postponed it just hours before a scheduled Security Council vote.
But the president-elect’s pronouncements have privately riled a White House that has repeatedly insisted in public that the transition has been smooth sailing.
Asked last week whether he was trying to help Trump, a professed admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, understand Russia’s responsibility for the civil-war carnage in Aleppo, Syria, President Obama said he would “help President-elect Trump with any advice, counsel, information that we can provide so that he, once he’s sworn in, can make a decision.”
“Between now and then,” Obama said firmly, it was up to him to decide what to do. “These are decisions that I have to make based on the consultations that I have with our military and the people who have been working this every day.”
Even as the White House has held its tongue, however, others have not.
Trump provided no details in his tweet calling for the United States to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” But “if he means what he says,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington-based security foundation, “this could be the end of the arms-control process that reduced 80 percent of our Cold War arsenal.”
Former congressman John Tierney (D-Mass.), executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said in a statement, “It is dangerous for the President-elect to use just 140 characters and announce a major change in U.S. nuclear weapons policy, which is nuanced, complex, and affects every single person on this planet.”
Under New START, the treaty negotiated by Obama with Russia and ratified by the Senate in 2010, the United States and Russia by February 2018 must have no more than 1,550 strategic weapons deployed. While there is widespread agreement that the U.S. deterrent must be modernized, little enthusiasm has been expressed elsewhere for increasing the number of nuclear warheads.
Trump spokesman Jason Miller later said that was not precisely what Trump meant. Rather than calling for more nuclear weapons, Miller told Yahoo News, he was referring to “the threat of nuclear proliferation” and “the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability.”
The president-elect’s U.N. tweet was more explicit and more immediate. “The resolution being considered . . . should be vetoed,” he said in a pre-dawn tweet referring to the Egyptian measure. The resolution condemned “the construction and expansion of settlements” in the West Bank and mostly Palestinian East Jerusalem, along with “the transfer of Israeli settlers, confiscation of land, demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinian civilians.”
Saying the settlements have “no legal validity,” it demanded that Israel “immediately cease all settlement activities.”
Although consideration of such a measure has been circulated at the United Nations for weeks — and similar measures have for years brought a consistent U.S. veto — it was not until Wednesday night that word began to circulate that the United States might abstain and allow it to pass.
While successive administrations have considered the settlements an impediment to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Obama administration has grown increasingly irate over what it feels is Israel’s flouting of its concerns.
Over the past six months, Israel has announced plans to add hundreds of units to existing settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A July announcement that 770 new homes were to be built in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo drew particularly sharp U.S. criticism.
At the same time, right-wing voices in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are pushing for legislation that would legalize settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land. The “legalization bill” stems from a court-ordered demolition of the Amona settlement, which sits on land owned by a Palestinian farmer.
Amona was meant to be demolished next week, but on Thursday it received an additional month of reprieve from the court. Residents brokered a deal with the government to move their homes to a nearby location, essentially creating a new settlement.
During the campaign, Trump frequently criticized what he described as the administration’s failure to fully support Israel. Last week, he named David Friedman — a New York bankruptcy lawyer who has given strong financial support and other backing to the Israeli settlement movement and has said Trump supports Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory — as his ambassador to Israel.
During the campaign, Trump also charged that Obama had helped promote terrorism by supporting “the ouster of a friendly regime in Egypt” — that of long-standing autocrat Hosni Mubarak — and more recently by failing to fully back the military government that overthrew Mubarak’s elected replacement.
In an interview last weekend with a Portuguese news agency, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi said that Trump “has shown deep and great understanding of what is taking place in the region as a whole and Egypt in particular. I am looking forward and expecting more support and reinforcement of our bilateral relations.”
Once it became clear late Wednesday that the settlements vote was scheduled for Thursday afternoon, Trump officials said the transition gave the administration a “heads-up” that the president-elect was going to publicly call for a U.S. veto.
At the end of the day Thursday, it was not entirely clear what led Egypt to withdraw the resolution. At the State Department, spokesman John Kirby said that Egypt had pulled it back in order to have “discussions with its Arab League partners” over the wording of the text.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who supported an abstention and was clearly expecting to deliver a pre-vote speech announcing it, along with an outline of future prospects for Middle East peace, canceled his plans. Elsewhere within the administration, officials said Israel had twisted Egypt’s arm and threatened to work against its interests in Congress.
Several Arab officials said they were convinced that the United States had pressured Egypt to postpone the vote.
In Israel, where a late-night cabinet meeting was convened Wednesday to consider the possibility of a U.S. abstention, Netanyahu sent out a dead-of-night tweet calling for a U.S. veto. It was quickly followed by Trump’s own, near-identical tweet.
Deriding “the imposition of terms set by the United Nations,” Trump said in a later statement that passage of the resolution would put Israel “in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis.”
Later in the day, a transition official told the Reuters news agency, Trump spoke by telephone with Sissi.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and an influential adviser to the president-elect, worked on the statement throughout Wednesday evening alongside Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, according to two people briefed on the deliberations. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Kushner and Bannon were initially reluctant to have Trump weigh in because of concerns that Trump would be overstepping the Obama administration weeks before Trump is inaugurated, the people said. But over the course of several hours, the pair and others in Trump’s orbit decided that the U.N. resolution, and the Obama administration’s efforts on the issue, should be rebuked.
Kushner and Bannon consulted with several allies in Israel and the United States as they worked on the statement, but the people briefed on the deliberations declined to say with whom they spoke or whether they were in direct contact with the Israeli government.
The conversations represented perhaps Kushner’s most high-profile if behind-the-scenes foray yet into foreign policy and the Middle East, where Trump has said he would welcome Kushner’s involvement.
Carol Morello and Robert Costa in Washington and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.