After North Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests, Donald Trump said in his initial response that he was “not happy.” That position has apparently been amended to mean “not noticing.”
In April, about a week after the missile tests, the president pretended nothing had actually happened, telling reporters, “There’s been no tests. There’s been no nothing.”
Last week in Tokyo, while standing along Japanese Prime Minister Abe, it happened again. The Republican argued, “There have been no ballistic missiles going out,” which is only true if one overlooks the ballistic missiles North Korea recently launched, and which the American president initially said he didn’t like.
Yesterday in Ireland, it happened once more. Alongside Irish Prime Minister Varadkar, Trump told reporters, in response to a question about North Korea:
“When I became president, and before that, as you know, it was all the time: nuclear testing, ballistic missile testing. And now there’s nothing.”
Nothing except the ballistic missile testing that we all saw – and which Trump is already on record mildly criticizing.
The president’s strange rhetoric comes against a backdrop in which John Bolton, his own White House national security adviser, concluded that there’s “no doubt” the North Korean missile launches violated U.N. Security Council resolutions. Soon after, Pat Shanahan, Trump’s handpicked acting Defense secretary, came to the same conclusion.
Their boss, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to care. It’s worth considering why.
At face value, this may seem like a clumsy attempt at diplomacy: Trump is so desperate to reach some kind of nuclear agreement with Kim Jong-un that he’s willing to defend North Korea’s antics, no matter how provocative.
But I also believe the Republican feels the need to create an alternate reality because to acknowledge the facts would be to concede that his policy isn’t working. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius had a good column along these lines last week:
Watching the clown show that has been President Trump’s foreign policy lately, you wonder whether there’s any coherent logic embedded in his erratic, internally conflicting statements about Iran, North Korea and other issues. And of course, there is: It’s the politics, stupid.
Trump is already in full campaign mode. In his quest for reelection, he doesn’t want to be seen to fail in anything. He wants to sound tough (popular) so long as it doesn’t get him into a war (unpopular).
Trump is polishing his résumé, claiming success for North Korea diplomatic negotiations that have gone nowhere. If that means contradicting national security adviser John Bolton and pretending that Pyongyang’s recent ballistic tests didn’t violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, fine, no problem. Just don’t call it a failure.
Evidently, it also means pretending the recent ballistic tests didn’t occur at all.