When Donald Trump raised the specter of a nuclear confrontation with North Korea this week, he wasn’t just saber-rattling; he was issuing a specific kind of warning. As Rich Lowry put in a new Politico piece:
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was on the receiving end of the alliteration heard around the world, when Trump promised “fire and fury” if Pyongyang continued to threaten the United States.
It was classic Trump – a memorably pungent expression that dominated the news cycle and probably didn’t reflect more than about 30 seconds of thought.
It was a promise, however, that the American president had no intention of keeping. Trump vowed “fire and fury” in response to North Korean threats, which naturally led to more North Korean threats. The Republican, confronted with the provocation he’d just said would be unacceptable, responded quickly – by complaining about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Kim Jong-un didn’t hesitate to cross Trump’s bright red line, just as Trump didn’t hesitate to back down from the “fire and fury” promise he’d made for all the world to see.
The president, in other words, was bluffing – something Trump does often, despite being horrible at it.
Indeed, it’s become one of the underappreciated hallmarks of the president’s style. A month before taking office, for example, Trump declared, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things.” Two weeks into his presidency, Trump, in a rather pathetic display of groveling, Trump reversed course, declaring his support the “One-China” policy – publicly and in writing – in exchange for nothing.
A month later, when the House was weighing its first health care bill, Trump’s team at one point declared that the bill was closed, negotiations had ended, and members should stop asking for changes. Several House Republicans quickly discovered, however, that they could go directly to the president, who’d reopen the bill in the hopes of making skeptics happy.
A month after that, Trump said he was prepared to shut down the government unless Congress included funds for his border wall in a temporary spending bill. Members of both parties risked the shutdown, assumed the president was bluffing, and were proven right: Trump quietly slinked away from his threats when no one found them credible.
Two months after that, Trump threatened former FBI Director James Comey with the release of secret tapes. Comey wasn’t intimidated in the slightest – in fact, he welcomed the release of any recordings – and the president was forced to concede his bluster was hollow and the tapes didn’t exist. (It wasn’t the first time he was caught bluffing about secret recordings.)
Trump even announced his intention to sue the many women who accused him of sexual misconduct, only to back away without explanation.
The lesson for everyone – friend and foe, here and abroad – is that Donald Trump likes to make threats, but he tends not to follow through on them. The American president has an unhealthy fondness for bluffing; I just wish he were better at it.