During a high-profile foreign policy speech, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton repeated a series of past statements by Donald Trump to show that her Republican rival poses risks for international relations.
One of these past statements by Trump involved whether Japan should become a nuclear-armed state.
"It's no small thing when he suggests that America should withdraw our military support for Japan, encourage them to get nuclear weapons," Clinton said in her June 2, 2016, speech.
Is Clinton correct that Trump encouraged Japan to get nuclear weapons?
What Trump has said
As we noted earlier, Clinton’s evidence includes interviews and comments Trump has made on the campaign trail.
When Trump sat for a March 26 interview with the New York Times, he was asked directly, "Would you object if (Japan) got their own nuclear arsenal, given the threat that they face from North Korea and China?"
Trump responded in part, "There’ll be a point at which we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore. Now, does that mean nuclear? It could mean nuclear. It’s a very scary nuclear world. Biggest problem, to me, in the world, is nuclear, and proliferation. At the same time, you know, we’re a country that doesn’t have money."
Let’s set aside Trump’s internal inconsistency -- saying that Japan might need nuclear weapons, and then, just seconds later, saying that the world’s "biggest problem" is nuclear proliferation.
If you read his words closely, Trump didn’t quite say he was encouraging Japan to get nuclear weapons, but he did go right up to the line. He was leaving the option on the table.
Having seen Trump’s comments to the New York Times, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked him about it in a CNN town hall in Milwaukee on March 29.
Answering Cooper’s question about breaking with Japan’s non-nuclear stance, Trump said, "At some point we have to say, you know what, we're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea."
In fact, during the town hall, Cooper gave Trump multiple opportunities to back off his suggestion that Japan may need nuclear weapons, but Trump never did. He said, in succession, "maybe it's going to have to be time to change," "at some point we have to say, you know what, we're better off," "it's going to happen, anyway," and "wouldn't you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons?"
That may not fit the strict definition of encouraging Japan to get nuclear weapons, but again, it’s very close.
Finally, Trump said something similar on the April 3 edition of Fox News Sunday, when host Chris Wallace pressed Trump on his past comments.
After Wallace asked whether Trump wanted to see a nuclear arms race on the Korean peninsula, Trump said, "It's not like, gee whiz, nobody has them. So, North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean, they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea."
Wallace interjected, "With nukes?" Trump responded, "Maybe they would be better off -- including with nukes, yes, including with nukes."
How unusual this position is
We also asked nuclear policy experts whether Trump’s stated position -- not specifically encouraging Japan to get nuclear weapons, but saying he would be open to it -- was an unusual view, as Clinton suggested. They said it was.
"The prevailing, bipartisan and fairly settled academic judgment has been that the risk of loose nukes or accidental nuclear war means that every additional nuclear weapon is a potential cataclysm waiting to happen," said Richard Nephew, a fellow with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. "I'm not aware of anyone that I'd deem to be a serious policy proponent or thinker who has seriously advocated this in a while."
The last major figure Nephew could think of is Kenneth Waltz, an international relations scholar who articulated a "realist" view -- discussed in this 1981 paper -- that said the wide spread of nuclear weapons would create such risks to using them that no country ever would.
However, "by the 1960s, most folks had decided that was a horrible idea," Nephew said. "You'd be hard pressed to find anyone saying that since the end of the Cold War."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, agreed. The statements were so out of the mainstream that "our allies in Japan and the rest of Asia are already alarmed by those statements. Mr. Trump’s suggestion that a nuclear-armed Japan would make the United States or Japan safer is radical and highly dangerous, and is without precedent for a major party presidential nominee."
Clinton took Trump to task for saying that the United States should "encourage" Japan to get nuclear weapons.
Trump used vague and contradictory language, but it’s a fair reading to say his words amounted to encouragement. On more than one occasion, Trump publicly said that Japan, and the United States, might be better off if Japan had nuclear weapons, and he declined multiple attempts by interviewers to backtrack from that view.
We rate Clinton’s statement Mostly True.