The primary pursuit of any communications operation is message discipline ― the ability to speak in a consistent voice with minimal confusion. This is particularly true for a president and the presidential team since the stakes are extremely high. Markets can move, global conflicts can erupt and legislation can be halted or sprung to life based on a single word choice.
So depending on one’s perspective, it has been either remarkable or harrowing to watch as President-elect Donald Trump and his aides have discussed nuclear proliferation policy with little apparent cohesive message at all.
Like many modern dramas, this one started with a tweet from Trump. What followed was 24 hours of clarification that suggested one of two things: The Trump team sees ambiguity as a good thing or they aren’t all operating from the same playbook.
TRUMP: WE MUST EXPAND OUR NUCLEAR CAPABILITY.
Trump started this whole saga on Thursday:
TRUMP AIDE: HE MEANT PREVENTING NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION
Later on Thursday, Trump’s top spokesman Jason Miller put out the first comment in reaction to the tweet.
President-elect Trump was referring to the threat of nuclear proliferation and the critical need to prevent it — particularly to and among terrorist organizations and unstable and rogue regimes. He has also emphasized the need to improve and modernize our deterrent capability as a vital way to pursue peace through strength.
TRUMP AIDE: HE’S NOT NECESSARILY SAYING EXPAND OUR NUCLEAR CAPABILITY
On Thursday night, Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show.
MADDOW: Honestly, though, the American position on nuclear weapons worldwide for a very long time now, not just as a partisan matter but over multiple presidents, has been that we are trying to lead the way in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. He’s saying we’re going to expand our nuclear capability.
CONWAY: He’s not necessarily saying that.
MADDOW: He did. He did literally say we need to expand our nuclear capability.
CONWAY: What he’s saying is we need to expand our nuclear capability, really our nuclear readiness or our capability to be ready for those who also have nuclear weapons.
TRUMP: NO, I REALLY MEANT I AM FINE WITH MORE NUKES
On Friday morning, Trump reportedly told the hosts of Morning Joe that he was fine with more nukes.
“Let it be an arms race,”Host Mika Brzezinski quoted him as saying. “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
TRUMP AIDE: THERE WON’T BE AN ARMS RACE
Later on Friday morning, NBC’s Matt Lauer asked Trump’s incoming press secretary Sean Spicer about Trump’s comments.
LAUER: If there is going to be an arms race…
SPICER: There is not going to be.
LAUER: He says, so be it, we will match them at every turn.
SPICER: But there’s not going to be because he is going to ensure other countries get the message he is not going to sit back and allow that. What’s going to happen is they will all come to their sense and we will all be just fine.
There is such a thing as strategic ambiguity ― the concept that you benefit when your adversaries have to guess at your intentions. Trump certainly seems drawn to this concept. He chastised President Barack Obama repeatedly for being too forthcoming about his counter-terrorism strategies. He’s also moved quickly to shake up decades of U.S. policy to China without outlining a coherent replacement plan.
But the downside of strategic ambiguity is that it can facilitate some unexpected, unwanted results. And in this case, that might include marching the world closer to a nuclear confrontation.