President Trump brought the United States and North Korea to the precipice of war by warning that any further threats would be met with a nuclear attack. (“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.”) North Korea proceeded to test this warning by immediately issuing a new threat, to attack Guam. This forced the United States into the unenviable position of either instigating a massive war with horrific casualties or surrendering its credibility. The administration has wisely chosen Option B.
“Don’t read too much into it,” sources tell Politico’s Josh Dawsey. The New York Times has much more detail. Trump improvised his threat without advance consultation with his advisers, none of whom support it. The paper he was holding when he made the statement was about the opioid crisis. Trump “was in a bellicose mood” when he made the statement, due to a Washington Post report that morning about North Korea having miniaturized a nuclear warhead.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis have issued more normal-sounding statements intended to supersede the president’s improvised one. (Mattis’s statement redraws the red line, threatening reprisal in return for North Korean actions, rather than threats.) The message of this cleanup is that Trump’s statements do not necessarily represent the position of the U.S. government – a reality most American political elites in both parties already recognize, but which needs to be made clear to other countries that are unaccustomed to treating their head of state like a random Twitter troll.
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. But at this point, respect for Trump’s capabilities is a horse that’s already fled the barn. New chief of staff John Kelly has supposedly instilled military-style order and message discipline into the administration, but Trump is unteachable. Minimizing the havoc means getting everybody to pretend Trump isn’t really president.