Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Wednesday morning defended President Donald Trump’s reckless threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, but make no mistake: In the course of doing so, Tillerson quietly erased the red line that Trump laid down, and redrew it in a relatively more reasonable place.
Tillerson’s comments will in this sense have a calming effect. But they are also cause for a different sort of alarm: They raise additional questions as to why Trump made the comments in the first place; what process went into the creation and delivery of them, if any; and what will — or won’t — be done to ensure that there is a sane process in place to shape further comments from Trump as this crisis unfolds.
Tillerson, returning from Asia, defended Trump’s comments this way:
“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language. … I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”
In this sense, Tillerson stood by Trump’s threat. But Tillerson also sought to reassure Americans by saying this:
“I think what the president was just reaffirming is that the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so. So the American people should sleep well at night.”
Tillerson also said “the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has the unquestionable ability to defend itself … and its allies.” But that subtly — and meaningfully — shifts the red line Trump drew.
Trump, recall, said this Tuesday: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Trump then once again alluded to Kim Jong Un’s threats, and reiterated that they “will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
In other words, Trump clearly stated — twice — that any further threats from North Korea would be met with a response that dwarfs any show of military power ever seen in human history, including, presumably, America’s dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan. Anything Trump does, or threatens to do, will be bigger and stronger than what came before it, including the nuclear annihilation of millions.
But Tillerson backed off of that. He recast Trump’s comments to mean that we will respond to defend ourselves from any attack, not respond with force to any further threats. (Indeed, North Korea crossed the red line Trump drew only hours later.)
“Tillerson has drawn the line in a more traditional and reasonable place,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear nonproliferation expert who tweets as ArmsControlWonk, told me. “The question is: What did Trump think he was saying? My guess is he didn’t think about it at all. That’s the problem. … He doesn’t pay any attention to word choice.”
As many have already observed, by vaguely vowing an overwhelming nuclear response to continued threats from North Korea, Trump sounded a lot like North Korea itself, employing a formulation that is both vague and menacing, which in combination increases the risk of miscalculation and, with it, unspeakable horror. Tillerson plainly tried to undo that Wednesday by redrawing the line more sharply, while defending the impulse behind Trump’s comments.
But that still leaves us guessing in a way that raises worrisome unknowns about what’s to come. We don’t know what Trump really meant. What has now been confirmed, however, is that Trump will use vague and reckless language in the most dangerous conceivable contexts.
“If one had any doubt that Trump was going to be incredibly reckless with language at the worst possible times, he just did it,” Lewis said. “Tillerson’s efforts suggest that everyone around Trump knows that was crazy.”
But that raises an additional question: What process went into the creation and delivery of this statement in the first place? Michael Warren of The Weekly Standard suggests this morning that the White House, including Trump’s national security team, was not aware that Trump was going to deliver this statement. And The New York Times adds, alarmingly, that “White House officials did not respond to questions about how much planning went into his brief statement.”
This urgently needs to be teased out. We need to know more about the process, if any, that went into the creation of this statement, and we’ll need to know more about this process going forward, as Trump delivers more similar statements in what looks like an escalating situation.
“No administration is of one mind on anything, so process determines how different preferences are aggregated together in presidential statements,” Lewis said. “Trump doesn’t choose words with any care whatsoever. If you don’t understand the process, you’re not going to understand what’s been agreed to … by broad inter-agency agreement.” Or if there was any such process at all.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog for The Washington Post, offering opinion with a liberal slant.