President Donald Trump gestures during his "Make America Great Again...

President Donald Trump gestures during his "Make America Great Again Rally" at Orlando-Melbourne International Airport Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017, in Melbourne, Fla. Credit: AP / Chris O’Meara

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday touted his administration’s efforts to remove criminal immigrants who are in the United States illegally, describing the initiative as a “military operation.”

Trump discussed his focus on illegal immigration during a White House meeting with manufacturing industry chief executives. He told the group he would continue to return jobs to the United States and then spoke about deportation efforts.

“We’re getting gang members out. We’re getting drug lords out,” the president said. “We’re getting really bad dudes out of this country, and at a rate that nobody’s seen before. And they’re the bad ones, and it’s a military operation.”

Afterward, administration officials sought to clarify Trump’s remarks.

Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly said during a visit to Mexico City that there was, “no use of military force” being used to enforce immigration laws.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that while Trump did not misspeak, he used the word “military” as an adjective, because the orders are being executed with a “high degree of precision and in a flawless manner.”

Also Thursday, Trump said he wants to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal to ensure it is at the “top of the pack,” saying the United States has fallen behind in its atomic weapons capacity.

In an interview with Reuters, Trump said he was, “the first one that would like to see ... nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power.”

Trump also complained about Russian deployment of a cruise missile in violation of an arms control treaty and said he would raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin when and if they meet.

Separately, Spicer said the administration will beef up enforcement of federal laws controlling recreational marijuana, which is legal in some states.

“When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country, the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people,” Spicer said.

The administration also addressed its withdrawal of federal protections for transgender students, despite Trump’s vocal advocacy of the LGBT causes during his campaign.

The administration on Wednesday reversed Barack Obama-era protections of transgender students’ rights to use a bathroom consistent with their gender identity. The move, which the education and justice departments said was in response to legal confusion, was cheered by social conservatives but denounced by civil rights groups.

Spicer told reporters that Trump remains “very sympathetic” to young people who face discrimination but won’t dictate to states what they should do.

“He’s a guy with a heart that understands the trouble that many people go through, but he also believes that the proper legal recourse for this is with the states,” Spicer said.

Spicer noted that the guidelines the administration rescinded were enjoined by a court in August because they weren’t properly drafted by the Obama administration.

The U.S. Supreme Court in late March is scheduled to consider the case of a transgender Virginia teenager who sued his school board for adopting a policy requiring students to use the facilities consistent with their biological sex. The case potentially could set national policy.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Joshua Block, who is representing 17-year-old Gavin Grimm, said transgender students are protected from sex discrimination by Title IX and “the administration cannot change what Title IX means.”

Block said in a statement that the high court said it would decide on the interpretation of Title IX without taking either the Obama or Trump administration’s guidance into consideration.

Spicer also was asked Thursday about Trump’s pushing back of the release date for a new executive order on travel and immigration. Trump’s initial ban was halted in court.

“It’s not a question of delaying it. It’s a question of getting it right,” Spicer said of the measure now expected next week.

Trump on Thursday also held a discussion at the White House on human trafficking.

He is scheduled Friday to deliver an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

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