BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – After a four-day fusillade of apocalyptic threats against North Korea, President Donald Trump left many in Washington and capitals throughout the Pacific wondering whether it was more method or madness. Among those wondering were members of Trump’s own administration.
It was not the first time in his unconventional presidency that Trump had unnerved friend and foe alike, but never before had it seemed so consequential. Attacks on uncooperative members of his own party, the “dishonest media” and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” generally do not raise fears of nuclear war. But as with so much with Trump, the line between calculation and impulse can be blurry.
Trump’s “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” warnings fit the strategic imperatives of the advisers who gave him classified briefings over the past week. The president showed resolve in the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, as his aides had counseled, while increasing pressure on China to broker some kind of deal.
But Trump, who bridles at being stage-managed, ignored their advice to project dignified steadfastness. Carefully calibrated briefings for the president by H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came out through a Trump bullhorn, magnified and maximized for effect. For perhaps the first time in generations, a U.S. leader became the wild card in a conflict typically driven by a brutal, secretive despot in Pyongyang.
“On the U.S. side, the tradition has been steely resolve and preparation,” said Dennis Blair, a retired admiral and head of the U.S. Pacific Command who served as director of national intelligence. “But now we have a president who reacts to braggadocio with an attempt to top it on his own side. He’s out there in territory he thinks is familiar, which is meeting exaggerated statement with exaggerated statement, convincing the other side that we’re tough.”
In other words, the magnitude of the challenges Trump faces has grown dramatically, but his tone has not. And it remains to be seen whether the don’t-mess-with-me attitude that cowed Republican primary rivals will have a similar effect on a regime that has managed to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States while making progress toward miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that would fit on top.
Trump has told people around him that he thinks Kim Jong Un, the unpredictable North Korean leader, will ultimately be prodded to cut a deal, and that the bluntness of his language is intended to create a crisis that drives him to negotiate before North Korea perfects a nuclear missile.
To much of the foreign policy establishment in both parties, the approach is alarming.
“When I was watching the president talk, I thought, ‘Oh, my god, why is he doing this?’ ” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., former chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Anybody who knows anything about this young Korean leader knows it’s going to promote an even more aggressive response.”
Some of Trump’s advisers, including Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, have urged him to take a less interventionist stance, but Bannon has been kept out of most of the deliberations. Mattis has advised Trump to project strength and resolve. But he has lamented to lawmakers from both parties the absence of military options that would not imperil the lives of millions of civilians.
And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has complained privately about the lack of coordination between the White House and his department, which has often been blindsided by Trump’s statements.
Even some of the president’s own advisers have quietly asked one another in recent days if Trump’s bellicosity toward North Korea is part of some thought-out strategy that they have not been told about or what they suspect is just more on-the-fly instinct. But some aides have been surprised at other times when Trump has done something unexpected and seemingly random, only to explain his thinking afterward in a way that indicated more calculation than they had thought.
Aides do know that after a lifetime in the real estate business, Trump starts a negotiation with an extreme position intended to ensure that the other side meets him not just in the middle but closer to his side. While he has little experience in translating that into international diplomacy, Trump has shown that he is not so wedded to any particular position on almost any issue, meaning he might be more likely to accept a compromise that would seem unthinkable judging by the stark language he uses at the start.