MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The topic of arms control came up this week in a phone call between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S. and Russia have just over one year to deal with an expiring nuclear treaty. Trump wants to expand that treaty. He wants China to join.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I spoke to China about it. They - during one of our trade negotiations, they were extremely excited about getting involved in that.
KELLY: Now, skeptics worry that going big could risk upending the existing treaty with Russia. Here to talk about this is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hey there.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: So this is the New START treaty - that's the formal name. Why does President Trump want to make it bigger?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, he is concerned that Russia has been able to build up its nuclear arsenal despite that agreement, particularly when it comes to shorter-range nuclear weapons that are outside the scope of the treaty. Meanwhile, there's China, which is investing heavily in its own nuclear weapons. And while it doesn't have nearly as many weapons, the U.S. officials warn that China's been doing more testing than the rest of the world combined.
A senior administration official told me this week that President Trump has directed them to think more broadly, both in terms of including China but also on what is covered. And the official didn't rule out just extending the current deal with Russia.
KELLY: It sounds like a lot in play, which leads me to ask you about the timing here. They've got one year before it expires, and this is an election year in the U.S., so the president has a lot on his plate already. Are their concerns about that, of being able to get this done?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, not according to the person who has been running point on this at the White House until recently - that'd be Tim Morrison, who led Russia issues at the National Security Council. You'll remember that he resigned in October after testifying in the impeachment inquiry.
KELLY: I do.
ORDOÑEZ: He told me renewing can be done quickly, and there's no reason to rush when there's an opportunity now to bring Russia and China to the table.
TIM MORRISON: It's sort of like people who have a car lease. Nobody goes back to the dealer a year ahead of time and says, hey, can I give you my money now to extend the lease? No, they're going to give themselves the margin to go back and say, well, maybe there will be a better deal over the course of the next year.
ORDOÑEZ: To do otherwise, he says, is only playing into the interests of Russia, who is happy with the status quo, and China, who wants to keep building weapons.
KELLY: If China wants to keep building weapons, is China open to President Trump's vision for this? Do they want to join?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, there's little sign of that based on their public statements, and that's what worries people like Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. He said it would be foreign policy malpractice to allow the current deal with Russia to lapse, and there isn't enough time to negotiate a new one.
DARYL KIMBALL: If that treaty is allowed to expire in 2021, there will be no legally binding limits on the world's two largest nuclear arsenals, the U.S. and Russia, for the first time in five decades.
ORDOÑEZ: He argues it's more realistic for the U.S. and Russia to sign in an extension and then begin new talks with China.
KELLY: So how do we square that with what we heard from President Trump at the very beginning, that he sounded very confident - said they're all in; they want to get this done?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, Trump often boasts that the other side is eager to make a deal with him. That includes China, Iran and the Taliban. And that's another reason to be cautious about pushing this too far, says Molly Montgomery, a former career foreign service officer who worked on arms control in the Trump White House.
MOLLY MONTGOMERY: What we've seen time and time again is that the president is, shall we say, overly optimistic about other countries' willingness to sign on to the deals that he is proposing.
ORDOÑEZ: She told me the Russians are interested in renewing now, but there's no guarantee in 13 months that they will still be. And things can get complicated quickly, especially given the fraught nature of U.S. relations with Russia.
KELLY: Indeed. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez with the latest there on the fate of the last remaining U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty. Thanks, Franco.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
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