The NBC report cites "three officials who were in the room" during a July 20 meeting of top administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and numerous others. The discussion focused primarily on Iran and North Korea, two countries whose nuclear programs have been opposed by the US (although Tehran has always denied that their nuclear program was for any military purpose).
During the meeting, NBC reported, a graph showed the steady reduction of the US nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s, with the world turning against the rapid buildup of atomic weapons in the US and Soviet Union as well as the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons in countries like Egypt, India, Israel, Pakistan, Sweden and Taiwan. The US arsenal has shrank from a peak of 32,000 nuclear weapons in the late 60s to about 4,000 useable nukes today.
Trump allegedly called for a tenfold increase in nuclear arms when he saw the graph, although NBC reported that some officials doubted that he was being literal when he said that. Trump apparently also expressed a desire for an expansion of US military force. The comments shocked Dunford and Tillerson, among others.
Military leaders then allegedly told Trump that the US is signatory to many international treaties meant to limit nuclear buildup and thus any significant expansion would probably violate a bunch of them. It would also be prohibitively expensive and provoke US rivals such as Russia and China to also expand their own arsenals. Furthermore, it wouldn't be a good move for national defense, as nuclear weapons are only useful as a deterrent against attack.
Trump called the story "pure fiction, made up to demean" and asked "at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License [to broadcast]?" in a pair of tweets Wednesday morning.
Fake @NBCNews made up a story that I wanted a "tenfold" increase in our U.S. nuclear arsenal. Pure fiction, made up to demean. NBC = CNN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 11, 2017
He elaborated on his comments later in the day during a presser alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trump said that "we don't need an increase [of the US nuclear arsenal]. But I want modernization and I want total rehabilitation. It's got to be in tip-top shape."
"I never said that," he said of the "tenfold" comment. "Right now we have so many nuclear weapons I want them in perfect condition, perfect state…. It's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and someone should look into it."
Mattis also denied that the comment was made, calling it "absolutely false" and referring to NBC's "erroneous reporting" as "irresponsible."
After the meeting, NBC reported last week, Tillerson called Trump a "moron." It's not clear what particular comment from Trump prompted Tillerson to say that, they went on to say. Both Trump and State Department spokesman Heather Nauert denied that the comment was ever made — but Tillerson did not directly deny it, calling it "petty nonsense" instead.
A White House official "speaking on the condition of anonymity" allegedly told NBC that the July 20 discussion of the American nuclear arsenal was brief, and quickly returned back to the main topics of conversation.
The Pentagon is in the midst of its annual review of the US nuclear arsenal. While the number of weapons is not increased, the Pentagon typically spends around $20 billion a year to modernize and maintain the existing arsenal.