WASHINGTON — He promised unpredictability and he’s delivering. On an issue with the highest stakes imaginable, the life-and-death matter of a nuclear showdown, Donald Trump’s team delivered mixed messages Wednesday, with some seeking to de-escalate the boss’s language.
Team Trump danced around questions such as: Was Trump serious when he vowed to unleash fire, fury, and power with unprecedented force in world history, as retaliation for North Korean threats? Was this a firm red line? Was this statement prepared in advance?
A spokeswoman for his State Department even scolded reporters who pressed for more clarity: “I know you all want to obsess over statements and all of that and try to want to make a lot of noise,” Heather Nauert said.
Some reports said Trump’s words were improvised and surprised his own aides. The New York Times and CNN said the sheet of paper Trump was glancing at while uttering his threat was not a statement on North Korea — but a fact sheet on the opioid crisis.
A spokeswoman for Trump had a more nuanced explanation.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the message had been co-ordinated — to a certain extent. She said the president’s chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly and the National Security Council, were aware of the tone he would take but: ”The words were his own.”
The headline-grabbing statement caused some people, not just the news media, to snap to attention. It also prompted a spike in Google searches within the United States for, “How to survive a nuclear attack,” which increased 100-fold from a day earlier.
What the president specifically threatened was retaliation in the event of “any more threats to the United States” — a stakes-escalating gambit, given that the trash-talking, nuke-chasing, Hermit Kingdom crosses this threshold on a near-daily basis.
In fact, North Korea did it again immediately.
North Korea quickly put the president’s words to a test by threatening to attack the U.S. base on the island of Guam. A Canadian delegation happened to be at the epicentre of the drama Wednesday, securing the release of a pastor who had been jailed for more than two years in North Korea.
Trump’s secretary of state was on Guam during a refuelling layover and he delivered a soothing message to anyone back home alarmed by the sudden escalation in rhetoric.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night,” said Rex Tillerson, who spent an hour on the phone with the president after his attention-grabbing threat.
”Have no concerns about this particular rhetoric over the last few days. … I think what the president was just reaffirming is the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack and defend our allies and we will do so. So the American people should sleep well tonight.”
The secretary of defence also dialed down the warning level slightly.
While he used stern language and his remarks were reported as threatening by U.S. media, the specific wording employed by Defence Secretary James Mattis was more circumscribed.
While Trump spoke about retaliating against, “threats,” Mattis hewed to the stricter term, “actions.” Twice in a statement, he warned the North Koreans to avoid, ”actions,” that would provoke a catastrophic response: ”(It) would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
But not everyone downplayed the threat.
One White House staffer, security aide Sebastian Gorka, compared the standoff to the Cuban Missile Crisis — that tense two-week period in 1962 when global superpowers reached the brink of mutual, mushroom-cloud annihilation.
“During the Cuban missile crisis, we stood behind JFK,” Gorka told Fox News.
”This is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis. We need to come together.”
Trump, meanwhile, had a more low-key day Wednesday.
The president retweeted a story and video of himself delivering the threat; he tweeted a boast that he had modernized the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a years-long project that predated his presidency; and he took a shot against the top Senate Republican, amid an esalating feud within his party.
For a president who would declare, during his campaign, that, ”We have to be unpredictable,” on military matters, it was mission accomplished. But a staffer from the previous administrations was incredulous.
Barack Obama aide Ben Rhodes said the North Korean regime will not be talked out of abandoning its nuclear program — which it views as a bargaining chip to ensure its survival.
But with the help of international allies, and diplomacy, he said the U.S. could use current sanctions as leverage, offering some relief in exchange for controls on the nuclear program — as occurred in the controversial Iran deal.
He said rash talk made it harder to build a diplomatic alliance. He also said this should be a wakeup call for Americans, who have yet to witness the Trump administration confront a real crisis.
“We’re talking about nuclear war,” Rhodes told a podcast, Pod Save The World.
“Is this really the informed judgment of his entire national-security team? Or is this something he just decided to pop off and say? … We have to hope there is a more sober group of people in the Trump administration.”