Trump once insisted US wouldn’t ‘be second in line’ to press nuclear button

‘Was he really talking about total annihilation as we flew over the ravaged sights of the island?’ Puerto Rico’s former governor asks in memoir

Gustaf Kilander
Washington DC
Thursday 20 June 2024 15:21 BST
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Then-Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello was stunned by what he heard then-President Donald Trump say in 2017 as they toured storm damage from Hurricane Maria, which killed thousands of people and inflicted major damage on the island’s infrastructure.

“If nuclear war happens, we won’t be second in line pressing the button,” Trump reportedly mused during a helicopter tour of the devastation.

The revelation was made in Rossello’s new memoir, The Reformer’s Dilemma, which recounts Trump’s trip to the island in the aftermath of Maria. Rossello said he was shocked by the admission — and Trump’s talk of nuclear war as Puerto Rico was in the midst of crisis.

“‘Nature has a way of coming back,’ said the president. ‘Well, it does until it does not. Who knows with nuclear warfare what will happen…’” Trump said, according to an excerpt of Rossello’s memoir obtained by The Hill.

“And then, he said the one thing that made me more concerned than anything else in the entire visit. ‘But I tell you what…’ He paused for effect. ‘If nuclear war happens, we won’t be second in line pressing the button.’”

“This statement floored me. I could not believe what I was hearing. It was surreal. Was he really talking about total annihilation as we flew over the ravaged sights of the island?” Rossello writes.

Concerns that Trump could start a nuclear conflict increased when he intensified his rhetoric towards North Korea in 2018, writing: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Trump and Rossello met in Puerto Rico on October 3, 2017
Trump and Rossello met in Puerto Rico on October 3, 2017 (AFP via Getty Images)

In January of this year, Trump told a crowd that he needed legal immunity so that he wouldn’t be indicted for dropping nuclear weapons on a city like then-President Harry Truman did in 1945.

“You have to give a president full and total immunity!” he insisted.

When Trump was trying to overturn the 2020 election results, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley if he could stop an “unstable” commander-in-chief from accessing nuclear launch codes. Milley was reported to have reminded senior officials not to take any action on the matter unless Milley was involved.

“No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure,” Milley said, according to the book Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

Trump visited the island after Hurricane Maria swept through in October 2017
Trump visited the island after Hurricane Maria swept through in October 2017 (Getty Images)

The Trump campaign told The Hill that the world “was safer and more peaceful than any time in decades” when Trump was in the White House. “President Trump abhors the idea of nuclear war. That’s why his historic diplomacy with North Korea stopped the regime’s nuclear tests and long-range missile launches, which resumed after Biden took office.”

The Trump administration was criticized for being slow to deliver aid to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria as Trump blasted some local officials and shared his doubts about the official death toll of the storm.

The Puerto Rican government ordered a study which found that almost 3,000 people died, with the government taking that on as the official death toll, upping it from 64. Trump baselessly argued that the numbers had been increased to make him look worse.

Trump threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd as he visited the Cavalry Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico on October 3, 2017
Trump threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd as he visited the Cavalry Chapel in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico on October 3, 2017 (AFP via Getty Images)

Rossello also wrote about the viral moment that Trump began throwing rolls of paper towels into a crowd as if they were basketballs.

“The image plastered in history was one that demonstrates disdain and repulsion for the people,” the former governor wrote, according to the excerpt published by The Hill. “Was it dumb and incredibly thoughtless? Yes. The president should have known better. But that does not detract from the true story: The media narrative got carried away, which is happening more often than not in our political culture.”

Since 2021, Rossello has been the shadow representative for Puerto Rico to the US House. He served as governor between 2017 and 2019 when he resigned amid widespread protests in reaction to the Telegramgate scandal, which stemmed from the release of a group chat on the app Telegram between Rossello and his staff, which included sexist and homophobic language.

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