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WH press secretary denies Trump stumped by reference to START

START is a nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the US

CNN  — 

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied President Donald Trump didn’t know what a key nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia’s president was when the two men spoke by phone two weeks ago.

Spicer insisted Thursday that Trump knew what the US-Russia New START agreement was during his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and was merely seeking an opinion from an aide when he paused during the conversation.

Spicer was asked the question in reference to a Reuters report which, citing unnamed sources, suggested that Trump had to ask an aide what the treaty was while on the call.

“It wasn’t like he didn’t know what was being said. He wanted an opinion on something,” Spicer told reporters.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that he could not confirm reports that the phone call between the two leaders included discussions of the agreement.

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Nuclear superpowers

In December, then-President elect Trump signaled that he would look to “strengthen and expand” the US’ nuclear capability, hours after Putin pledged to enhance his own country’s nuclear forces.

“The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” he said on Twitter.

Before Trump’s tweet, Putin had touted Russia’s military strength, saying it was “stronger than any aggressor’s.”

The exchange appeared to raise the prospect of a new arms race between the two nuclear superpowers, which between them boasts more than 14,000 nuclear warheads, a deadly legacy of their four-decades long Cold War standoff.

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What is START?

  • The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, was signed by the US and the USSR in 1991 and limited the number of nuclear arms each country stockpiles.
  • The treaty went into effect in 1994.
  • Under the agreement, each side could deploy up to 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 6,000 warheads.
  • In 2010 then-President Barack Obama renewed the deal, which became New START.
  • The original 1991 agreement was renamed START I when the new treaty went into effect.

What is New START?

  • New START went into effect on February 5, 2011.
  • The agreement aimed to cut the number of nuclear weapons that the US and Russia could deploy by about one third.
  • The limits set out in the treaty aim for a maximum of 700 deployed ICBMs, submarines and bombers, and a total of 1,500 warheads.
  • Obama called it “the most comprehensive arms control agreement in nearly two decades;” then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called it a “win-win situation” for both countries.
  • It also allows annual stockpile inspections for both sides.
  • And it includes a withdrawal clause, standard in these types of deals.
  • The treaty doesn’t limit testing, development or deployment of current or planned US missile defense programs.
  • The current version of the treaty is scheduled to expire in 2021, but there’s an option to extend it for five years.

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Putin-Trump axis

Trump has vowed to have better relations with Russia than his predecessor.

This month, he suggested he would lift sanctions imposed by the Obama administration if the Kremlin helps the US battle terrorists.

In his new year’s message, Putin congratulated Trump and expressed hope their two countries would be able to “take their interaction in the international arena to a whole new level.”

“Major global and regional challenges that our countries have confronted in recent years clearly confirm that Russia-US relations are an important factor in ensuring stability and security in the modern world,” Putin said.

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CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Stephen Collinson, Jeremy Diamond and James Griffiths contributed to this report.