In this mad Presidency, there have been many mad days, but Friday may have been the maddest yet. It began in the morning, with Donald Trump issuing yet another war threat on Twitter. “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely,” Trump wrote. “Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!” Later in the day, during a photo op at the President’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, a reporter asked Trump what his tweet meant. “Well, I think it is pretty obvious,” he replied. “We are looking at that very carefully, and I hope they are going to fully understand the gravity of what I said, and what I said is what I mean. Those words are very, very easy to understand.” The reporter asked if any progress was being made on the diplomatic front. Trump wouldn’t be drawn out, but he did say, “We’ll either be very, very successful quickly, or we’re going to be very, very successful in a different way, quickly.”
In the wake of Trump’s declaration, on Tuesday, that North Korea faced “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued to threaten the United States, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, and James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, having been making efforts to clarify that what matters are North Korea’s actions, not its words. On Friday, Trump undid those efforts. “This man will not get away with what he is doing, believe me,” he said, referring to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. “And if he utters one threat, in the form of an overt threat—which, by the way, he has been uttering for years, and his family has been uttering for years—or if he does anything with respect to Guam, or any place else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast.”
Trump wasn’t done. After a meeting with Tillerson; Nikki Haley, the Ambassador to the United Nations; and H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, he took more questions from the press. Once again, he stressed the dire consequences that North Korea would suffer if anything happened to Guam. He also insisted that he and Tillerson were “totally on the same page.” Tillerson, standing beside the President and playing the good soldier, nodded in agreement and said it would take “a combined message” to achieve a favorable solution. One reporter asked Trump what he could say to Americans who are on edge after all the threatening talk. “Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump,” he replied, referring to himself in the third person.
He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself, and why not? The eyes of the world were upon him, and nobody had asked him about the Russian investigation. To the Narcissist-in-Chief, that is a twofer. Moreover, he had an adversary in his sights, and nothing makes him happier than that. When he was asked about a statement on North Korean state television that referred to the United States as “no more than a lump that we can beat to a jelly anytime,” Trump replied, “Let me hear others saying it, because when you say that I don’t know what you are referring to, and who is making the statement. But let me hear Kim Jong-un say it, O.K.? He’s not saying it. He hasn’t been saying much for the last three days.”
It is now clear that Trump has decided to turn a nuclear-weapons crisis that could conceivably lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of people into a personal feud of the sort he has carried out with Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, John McCain, Megyn Kelly, Hillary Clinton, and countless others. And Trump had some more warmongering left in him. A reporter asked about the U.S. reaction to the situation in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro is cracking down on opponents and redrafting the constitution to give itself more power. Rather than letting Tillerson or Haley, who was also standing alongside him, field this question, Trump said, “We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option. . . . We are all over the world, and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
If you haven’t seen the looks on the faces of Tillerson and Haley, the country’s two top diplomats, as Trump made this statement, you simply have to watch the video. Somehow, they had steeled themselves to look supportive as Trump further ratcheted up his rhetoric toward Kim and North Korea. But nothing, surely, could have prepared them for their boss suggesting that he might be looking for a second military adventure, this one in Latin America.
So what did it all add up to? Some observers said it was just Trump being Trump. “Increasingly I think the equilibrium we’re all headed towards is everyone inside the US gov and outside just ignoring what POTUS says,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted.
It would be very comforting if we could all ignore Trump and treat his Presidency the same way he seems to treat it: as a personal odyssey or a reality-television show. Unfortunately, however, he is the Commander-in-Chief of the largest, most deadly military machine that the world has ever seen—it has close to two thousand deployed nuclear warheads—and many of the checks and balances that constrain him in other areas of government don’t apply to starting a war.
Appearing on CNN after Trump’s press conference, Leon Panetta, who has more experience in the top echelons of the U.S. government than practically anybody else in Washington, injected a much-needed dose of reality into the situation. “I understand that this is a President who comes out of the development industry in New York City, comes out of reality TV. I think he kind of prides himself that talking is kind of his business, and talking is the way he appeals to his base, and he’s been able to win election to President because of his ability to talk,” Panetta said. “But when you are President of the United States, and when you are Commander-in-Chief, this is not reality TV. This is a situation where you can’t just talk down to everybody in the world and expect that somehow you can bully them to do what you think is right. These are leaders in these countries. They worry about their countries, they worry about what is going to happen. And they take the President of the United States literally.”
We should never lose sight of the fact that Trump, before he entered the White House, had never held any position of public responsibility. Panetta, who went to Washington in 1977 as a Democratic congressman from California, has served as the Defense Secretary, the head of the C.I.A., the White House chief of staff, and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. “Words count,” he went on. “And I just think that the President needs to understand, and the people around the President need to make clear, that when we are facing the kind of crisis that we are facing now, this is not a time for loose talk. It is a time for serious strategizing as to what steps we have to take in order to make sure we find a peaceful solution, and not wind up in a nuclear war.”
There are some serious and responsible people around Trump. They include McMaster, Tillerson, Mattis, and John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff. But the evidence of this week strongly suggests that Trump is beyond being educated or managed or controlled. He is truly a rogue President.
In a better political world, the senior members of Trump’s Cabinet would be talking to each other and taking legal advice this weekend about the 25th Amendment, which provides for the removal of a President who is unable or unfit to carry out his duties—which in the modern day include the awesome responsibility of deciding whether to use nuclear weapons. “The president alone has the authority to launch nuclear weapons, the only restraint being the advice of senior advisers who might be present at the time of crisis, and Donald Trump has shown repeated contempt for informed and wise counsel,” Gordon Humphrey, a Republican former senator for New Hampshire, wrote this week in a letter to his current congressional representatives. “He is sick of mind, impetuous, arrogant, belligerent and dangerous.”
Since Trump’s Cabinet is highly unlikely to heed Humphrey’s warning, the responsibility to restrain Trump falls on Congress. Under the War Powers Act of 1973, it is Congress, not the President, who holds the power to declare war. If Washington were functioning properly, the House and Senate would have been recalled from their summer recesses this week to discuss and debate Trump’s repeated threats. So far, though, the leaders of both parties have remained ominously quiet as Trump’s rhetoric has intensified. Indeed, about the only reaction has come in the form of a letter signed by sixty-four liberal House Democrats, led by Michigan’s John Conyers, condemning Trump’s “fire and fury” threat.
As many commentators, myself included, have pointed out before, Trump’s Presidency represents an unprecedented challenge to the American system of government. Up until this point, some parts of the system—the courts, the federal civil service, the media, and other institutions of civil society—have withstood the challenge pretty well. But it was always likely that the biggest test would come in the area of national security, where the institutional constraints on the President are less effective. Now, it looks like the moment of truth is upon us, and so far the response has been alarmingly weak. Unless that changes, Trump might well drag the country into a catastrophic war.