In his first call as president with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump denounced a treaty that caps U.S. and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads as a bad deal for the United States, according to two U.S. officials and one former U.S. official with knowledge of the call, reports Reuters.
When Putin raised the possibility of extending the 2010 treaty, known as New START, Trump paused to ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was, these sources said.
Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration, saying that New START favored Russia. Trump also talked about his own popularity, the sources said.
The White House declined to comment on the details of the call. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump knew what the New START treaty is but had turned to his aides for an opinion during the call with Putin. He said the notes from the call would not have conveyed that.
“I would say they had a very productive call,” Spicer told reporters. He added, “It wasn’t like he didn’t know what was being said. He wanted an opinion on something.”
It has not been previously reported that Trump had conveyed his doubt about New START to Putin in the hour-long call.
New START gives both countries until February 2018 to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550, the lowest level in decades. It also limits deployed land- and submarine-based missiles and nuclear-capable bombers.
During a debate in the 2016 presidential election, Trump said Russia had “outsmarted” the United States with the treaty, which he called “START-Up.” He asserted incorrectly then that it had allowed Russia to continue to produce nuclear warheads while the United States could not.
Two Democratic members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, senators Jeanne Shaheen and Edward J. Markey, criticized Trump for deriding what they called a key nuclear arms control accord.
“It’s impossible to overstate the negligence of the president of the United States not knowing basic facts about nuclear policy and arms control,” Shaheen said in a statement. “New START has unquestionably made our country safer, an opinion widely shared by national security experts on both sides of the aisle.”
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, said: “Unfortunately, Mr. Trump appears to be clueless about the value of this key nuclear risk reduction treaty and the unique dangers of nuclear weapons.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he supported the treaty during his Senate confirmation hearings.
During the hearings Tillerson said it was important for the United States to “stay engaged with Russia, hold them accountable to commitments made under the New START and also ensure our accountability as well.”
Two of the people who described the conversation were briefed by current administration officials who read detailed notes taken during the call. One of the two was shown portions of the notes. A third source was also briefed on the call.
Reuters has not reviewed the notes taken of the call, which are classified.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.