Consider the context of what transpired yesterday afternoon. Donald Trump, on a two-week vacation at a golf resort he owns, hosted an event on the opioid crisis. The president spoke for about five minutes on the subject, referencing notes in front of him at the time, and he then wrapped up by thanking everyone in attendance.A reporter in the room asked, “Any comment on the reports about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?” It was at that point that he said he’d respond to North Korean threats with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
There’s no shortage of questions about the comments, but one of the key lines of inquiry has to do with the administration’s broader approach to national security: did Trump deliver the “fire and fury” warning as part of a specific new White House strategy, or was the president just winging it?
According to Trump World, it’s the latter. The Weekly Standard reported that the president’s national security team had no idea Trump was going to say what he said, while the New York Times quoted White House sources saying yesterday’s comments were “entirely improvised” and hadn’t been presented to aides in advance.
[No faction within the White House] advocated language like “fire and fury,” according to the people involved. Among those taken by surprise, they said, was John F. Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who has just taken over as White House chief of staff and has been with the president at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., for his working vacation.
The president had been told about a Washington Post story on North Korea’s progress in miniaturizing nuclear warheads so that they could fit on top of a ballistic missile, and was in a bellicose mood, according to a person who spoke with him before he made the statement.
It’s certainly possible that White House officials are lying about all of this, but even if the version of events is accepted at face value, it’s not at all flattering. The argument, in effect, is that Trump was in a sour mood when he started winging it during a burgeoning nuclear crisis.
And as dreadful as that appears, it leads to the other part of Team Trump’s latest message, which is subtler, but just as dejecting.
One White House source told a Politico reporter, when asked about the president’s “fire and fury” comments, “Don’t read too much into it.”
But that’s ridiculous. During a burgeoning international crisis, White House officials can’t just shrug off the sitting president’s nuclear threats as if they were minor inconveniences.
Trump drew a red line, threatened a country that has nuclear weapons with “fire and fury,” watched that enemy immediately cross the red line, and the White House’s response is, “Don’t read too much into it”?
That’s not a credible posture. As Jon Chait put it, “It is humiliating for the world’s greatest superpower to disregard its president as a weird old man who wanders in front of microphones spouting off unpredictably and without consequence.”
I can appreciate why the administration does this – Trump is a hapless amateur, and it’s easier wave off his antics than defend them – but when comments from a sitting president don’t necessarily reflect his administration’s foreign policy, it creates global uncertainty that’s simply untenable.