For a man constantly boasting about his extraordinary negotiating prowess, President Trump made a pretty obvious rookie mistake on Tuesday, with his apocalyptic-sounding promise to deliver “fire and fury” to North Korea if the hermit kingdom continues to threaten the United States.
Trump’s comments came during a brief moment with the press, when he was asked to address the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. Earlier in the day, the regime in Pyongyang had threatened to retaliate against the U.S. for backing United Nations sanctions recently levied on the country. It also came amid reports that U.S. intelligence officials believe that North Korean scientists have successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon so it could fit on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
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The president’s comments were, by any measure, a major rhetorical escalation.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Even the most generous reading of Trump’s statement would have to concede that “fire and fury” is language that plainly connotes military action. And it would require being willfully obtuse not to hear “fire and fury like the world has never seen” as at least suggestive of the use of nuclear weapons.
Let’s step back for a moment from the subject of the nuclear annihilation of millions of people and consider a much more pedestrian situation that any parent of a teenager is likely all too familiar with.
Imagine a cranky high school kid who shows up at the dinner table every night with a chip on his shoulder. He’s got a snarky response to even the most mundane question, and a scowl for everyone.
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Yes, even the most reasonable parent wants to respond to disrespect and bad manners. But there are places any smart parent doesn’t go. For instance no mom or dad with any sense says, “If you roll your eyes at me one more time, I’m taking away all of your electronics for a month!”
The reason a smart parent doesn’t make that threat is that they know they probably won’t even get to the end of the sentence without having to decide whether or not to make good on it.
Teenagers roll their eyes at their parents. It’s what they do.
Trump yesterday promised military action against North Korea if it made “any more threats” to the United States. And as predictably as a surly teenager’s eye-rolling, the regime in Pyongyang promptly made more threats, announcing that is was considering an attack on the island of Guam, a U.S. territory home to two important military bases, that would leave the island in an “enveloping fire.”
North Korea directs overheated threats at the United States. It’s what they do.
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And now, like a father who has just had his bluff called at the dinner table, Trump has to decide what to do next. Does he make good on a threat he likely never seriously meant? Or does he attempt an embarrassing climb-down from the dangerous rhetorical perch he landed himself on yesterday?
The smart money is on some sort of humiliating retreat, masked by plenty of chest-thumping. On Wednesday morning, the process seemed to have begun, as Trump spent some time retweeting his favorite television show, Fox & Friends -- particularly segments that reiterated his threat against the North Korean regime. He also talked up the United States’ nuclear arsenal, which he said would never be matched by any other country.
However, he added a line that seemed to suggest that the U.S. wasn’t really on the brink of raining nuclear destruction down on anybody.
“Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
Assuming things don’t escalate any further, the U.S. and North Korea will restart from something close to the status quo once the dust settles. But the temporary frenzy into which Trump threw much of the country’s defense policy establishment yesterday raises an interesting theoretical question about how journalists should cover the president in the future.
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The default assumption for any serious reporter is that no important question ought to be out of bounds when addressing a major public figure like the president of the United States. Presidents should be pressed on their positions and intentions on all major issues, from economic policy to questions of war and peace.
But the assumption underlying that default position has always been that there are actual positions to uncover. Reporters ask the difficult questions believing that the president and his advisors have thought deeply about the serious issues facing the country and that they have a position, even if they may be reluctant or unwilling to articulate it.
In the Trump era, however, it’s not clear those assumptions hold. Did the president and his national security advisers really sit down and decide that the best thing for the president to do with regard to North Korea was to make a bellicose statement that sounded as though he was drawing a red line, beyond which lies war?
That was the spin the administration tried to put on it afterward, at least. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, insisted that the president’s statement was a premeditated attempt to speak to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in “language he understands.”
What seems more likely, though, is that the president was freelancing. That is to say, the he didn’t actually have a prepared answer, so he said the first thing that popped into his head. Unfortunately, that first thing included an implied threat of nuclear destruction.
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As a journalist, it seems sacrilegious to suggest it, but it seems at least possible that asking this president his position on some things -- particularly in a public forum -- could actually do more harm than good.
That’s not because the public doesn’t have a right to know what the federal government’s position is on important questions facing the nation. It’s because the president himself might not have a position, and he could decide to make one up on the spot.
The consequences of the next bit of impromptu national security policymaking could be more dire than an embarrassing retreat from a threat against North Korea.