With rhetoric that is literally incendiary -– the promise of “fire and fury,” repeated twice for effect -– the president is calculating that North Korea will change its behavior based on language the regime might recognize because it sounds so much like its own.
Trump is moving the red line closer to Kim Jong Un’s already-established actions, by warning against provocations as well as actions. He appears to be betting that an apparent step toward a shooting war with a nuclear-armed nation will force the other side to back off.
While major parts of the president’s national security team were caught off guard by his comments, the Trump White House is casting this as strategy that’s in keeping with the blunt style Trump has brought to the office.
“What the president was doing was sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jung Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Aides and associates are quick to point out that the Trump administration is still also employing diplomatic means, working through the United Nations and with China, Japan, and South Korea to change North Korea’s behavior.
Tillerson said he doesn’t view any of this as a step closer to war: “Americans should sleep well at night,” he said while touching down for a refueling stop in Guam, an American territory the North Koreans are explicitly threatening with a possible attack.
But the actions are setting off alarms even among national security hawks. Kim Jong Un is an unpredictable actor, and the consequences of the wrong move are potentially dire and deadly.
“I take exception to the president’s comments, because you gotta be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told radio station KTAR. “All it’s going to do is bring us closer to a serious confrontation. I think this is very, very, very serious.”
The public seems to share such concerns. In a CBS News poll out this week, 61 percent of Americans said they were uneasy about Trump’s ability to handle the North Korean nuclear situation. That poll was taken before reports emerged indicating that US intelligence officials believe the regime has a nuclear warhead it can fit on its missiles.
Trump was elected on the…