Can anybody persuade Donald Trump to go back to work? Having him on vacation is too stressful. When he is in the White House, we’ve come to expect that bizarre and disturbing developments can occur at any moment. But the phrase “Presidential vacation” conjures up images of Ronald Reagan chopping wood in Santa Barbara, George H. W. Bush fishing off the coast of Maine, Bill Clinton golfing in Jackson Hole, and Barack Obama biking on Martha’s Vineyard. At this time of year, White House correspondents are usually puttering about some exclusive resort, filing color stories, and almost everybody else is tuning out Presidential politics for a couple of weeks. Trump vacations aren’t like that.
On Monday, the President took time away from the lush fairways and greens at Trump National Golf Club, in Bedminster, New Jersey, to tweet insults at Senator Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, who had the temerity to suggest that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, should be allowed to continue and complete his investigation. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump again interrupted his break, this time to attend a briefing in the Bedminster clubhouse about the nation’s opioid crisis. He took the opportunity to threaten a devastating nuclear strike on North Korea.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said. “They will be met with the fire and fury that the world has never seen.” These remarks came in response to a reporter’s question about a story in the Washington Post which revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies now believe that North Korea has developed a miniature nuclear warhead, which could be fitted to the country’s prototype intercontinental ballistic missiles. “He”—Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader—“has been very threatening beyond a normal statement,” Trump went on. “And as I said, they will be met with the fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.”
After the reporters were ushered out of the room, Trump returned to the supposed business of the hour: a discussion about how to expand prevention efforts and treatment facilities for the more than two million Americans with an opioid problem. Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, was sitting on one side of Trump; Trump’s wife, Melania, was on the other. The only military man in sight was John Kelly, the former four-star Marine general, who recently took over as the White House chief of staff.
Within minutes, news of Trump’s words had gone around the world. They were met with a mixture of astonishment, alarm, and gallows humor. “Look on the bright side: compared to the coming thermonuclear inferno, global warming will seem quite pleasant,” Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist, said on Twitter. In a similar vein, Ross Douthat, the Times columnist, tweeted, “Nuclear war Twitter will be the best Twitter.” Psychologists tell us that laughing is often a way to deal with stress and to downplay dangerous situations. Indeed, the neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran has theorized that laughter developed as a way for early humans to signal to their kin, “Don’t waste your precious resources on this situation; it’s a false alarm.” Hopefully, Trump’s use of this bellicose rhetoric was such an instance, but it’s hard to be sure. It’s not even clear what he was trying to say.
Taken literally, the President’s words suggest that the United States would launch a massive attack in response to mere verbal threats from Kim and his official mouthpieces. Surely, that can’t be the case. It is North Korea’s actions, not its words, that matter—a fact that Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, had acknowledged just twenty-four hours earlier. Speaking at a security forum in the Philippines, Tillerson said that if Pyongyang halted its missile tests, Washington would be willing to open talks with Kim’s regime. On Wednesday, when he was asked about Trump’s remarks, Tillerson said that the President was “sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand” and downplayed an imminent military threat, saying that “Americans should sleep well at night.”
In light of Tillerson’s stance, a charitable interpretation of Trump words is that the Secretary of State and the President are doing a good-cop, bad-cop routine, and that Trump’s statement was part of a coördinated effort to persuade the North Korean dictator to change course. On Tuesday, the North Korean Foreign Minister said that his government would never agree to negotiate about its nuclear weapons. And a North Korean news agency responded to the United Nations’ recent imposition of new economic sanctions by saying, “Strategic steps accompanied by physical action will be taken mercilessly.”
Whether Trump’s statement was planned or not, it was a remarkable one. As a number of observers quickly pointed out, it echoed the warning that President Harry Truman issued to the imperial Japanese government on August 6, 1945, shortly after the Enola Gay, a U.S. Air Force B-29 Superfortress bomber, had dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, killing about seventy thousand people. “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth,” Truman said, in a radio address from the White House. Three days later, the United States dropped another nuclear bomb, this time on Nagasaki, killing another thirty-five thousand people.
Trump’s language also echoed the sorts of threats that Kim and his supporters routinely issue. Just this past Sunday, a government-run North Korean newspaper warned that if more sanctions were imposed on the country, it would result in the United States being “catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire,” as the Washington Post reported.
Perhaps Trump was intending to sound like Kim. Perhaps he is pursuing the old Richard Nixon “madman” theory of how to force an adversary to talk. But it didn’t work for Nixon with the North Vietnamese, and there’s no assurance that it will work for Trump with the North Koreans. “Nuclear deterrence is only effective if threats are deemed credible, bluster hurts our national security posture,” William Perry, the former Secretary of Defense, noted on Twitter. Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, was equally unimpressed: “Potus rhetoric should be tempered; goal now is to increase int’l pressure on N. Korea, not concern over US behavior.”
The immediate question is how far the brinksmanship will go. On Wednesday morning, in North Korea, the state news agency said that the country was “carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam,” which is home to a large U.S. military base. The plan, which would involve medium-range ballistic missiles, could be “put into practice in a multi-current and consecutive way any moment,” the news agency said.
This threatening statement was apparently not a reaction to Trump’s comments but, rather, to some flights over the Korean peninsula on Monday by U.S. B-1B bombers. It was also the sort of warning that Kim’s regime has issued before. But what might Trump’s response be, given what he said on Tuesday? On Wednesday morning, he posted a pair of tweets boasting that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “now far stronger and more powerful than ever.” He didn’t mention North Korea specifically but added, “Hopefully we will never have to use this power but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!” It wasn’t exactly reassuring.