President Trump’s threats against North Korea have highlighted as never before the tension between the president’s duties as chief executive and the role he often seems to prefer as the country’s highest-profile TV and Internet commentator.
Despite Trump’s blustery warning of “fire and fury,” which he amplified further in comments to reporters on Thursday, warships are not known to be moving toward the Korean peninsula, a tactic deliberately publicized during previous tense times to signal U.S. resolve. The U.S. has not reinforced troop levels in South Korea, as President Clinton was about to do in 1994 when the two countries did come to the brink of war. U.S. dependents have not been ordered out, nor have U.S. nuclear weapons been sent back in to South Korea.
Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Americans should “sleep well at night” and has pressed for talks, albeit with preconditions that the North Koreans so far have not been willing to meet.
On Thursday, even as Trump said his previous statements were perhaps “not tough enough,” Defense Secretary James N. Mattis emphasized diplomacy.
“Do I have military options? Of course I do. That's my responsibility,” Mattis told reporters as he flew to Seattle for meetings with tech industry officials.
“But what we're trying to do here is leave it loud and clear ... in the diplomatic arena: It is North Korea's choice. Do you want a much better future — the entire world community is saying one thing — or do you want a much worse future?”
The contrast may be a good cop/bad cop effort by the president and his Cabinet members. But the open confirmation by administration officials this week that Trump ad libbed his “fire and fury” declaration without consulting his main advisors on the specific wording suggests more a sudden impulse than a carefully considered tactic.
The frequent disconnect between Trump’s words and actual policy has been visible for months. On major issues — healthcare, trade, taxes — as well as on more specific questions such as whether transgender Americans may serve in the military, Trump has made declarations that the rest of the administration and Congress have often ignored or sidetracked.
The current situation differs from those earlier examples because of the context and risk. In the fraught standoff with North Korea, where miscommunication or misunderstanding could trigger a devastating war, the question of how to react to Trump has taken on tremendous gravity.
“Seriously, but not literally” is the phrase coined by one writer during the presidential campaign and adopted by some of Trump’s aides ever since.
U.S. officials can only guess how Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, might interpret Trump’s words. Foreign governments typically have a hard time interpreting U.S. politics and the free-wheeling nature of American television-driven discourse. That’s even more true with a country like North Korea, whose leaders have minimal contact with Americans.
The North Koreans may be more focused on U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, the next round of which is scheduled to take place later this month. The exercises were planned long in advance, but this one will be carefully watched for signs of whether the U.S. and its allies are trying to avoid making Pyongyang nervous or, to the contrary, seeking ways to increase the pressure on Kim’s government.
Both sides will also be waiting to see how other countries, especially China, enforce the new economic sanctions against North Korea that the U.N. Security Council approved Saturday. Some foreign policy analysts believe Trump’s rhetoric might prompt China to crack down on North Korean trade in the hopes of pressuring Pyongyang into negotiating. Others think the president’s blunt language could have just the opposite effect.
Even in Washington, interpretations of Trump have varied widely. Some officials have reacted to Trump’s words in ways that underline a remark Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s short-lived communications director, made shortly before he lost his job:
“There are people inside the administration who think it is their job to save America from this president,” he said in an interview with CNN.
By contrast, some of Trump’s closest acolytes have depicted his comments in heroic terms.
“This is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis,” White House aide Sebastian Gorka declared on Trump’s favorite television program, the morning “Fox & Friends,” as he exhorted Americans to unite behind the president.
The current standoff and the Cuban one more than a half century ago, however, differ in nearly all important respects but one — both featured new presidents being tested by a high-stakes confrontation involving nuclear weapons.
The Cuba crisis involved two nuclear-armed powers deliberately taking steps that threatened war, steadily escalating until both found a formula that allowed them to back down. It also featured a president, John F. Kennedy, who micromanaged each moment of the standoff, as historical accounts have shown.
The current standoff involves a vast disparity in power between the two countries and no obvious effort at escalation.
As for the president, Trump has ducked in and out of the Korea crisis, taking occasional meetings between vacation rounds of golf at his resort in Bedminster, N.J. He has seemed mostly content to allow others, especially Tillerson and Mattis, to manage the situation.
Having said his piece on North Korea on Tuesday, Trump appeared for a couple of days to have moved on.
Wednesday and Thursday, before renewing his rhetorical volleys at Kim, Trump had a new target in his sights, his party’s leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell.
In a series of messages on Twitter, he sharply criticized the Kentucky senator for having failed to deliver a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The jabs disturbed Republican officials, who questioned how a feud would help their legislative agenda. But for Trump, that may be secondary. He was back in his element as commentator in chief.
For more on Politics and Policy, follow me @DavidLauter
12:50 p.m.: This article was updated with Trump’s latest statements.
This article was originally published at 11:20 a.m.