The diplomatic cleanup operation began early Wednesday, when Rex Tillerson, the media-shy Secretary of State, gave a rare interview to reporters onboard his plane, over the Pacific Ocean, addressing the incendiary comments his boss made on Tuesday about North Korea. “You know, the U.S.A. and the international community, with respect to North Korea, has actually had a pretty good week,” Tillerson said. “We had a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution that strengthens sanctions against North Korea, with China and Russia joining us in that vote. . . . What the President was doing was sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language. . . . I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.” Tillerson added that he hoped the entire world, including China and Russia, would now be able to persuade North Korea to “reconsider the current pathway they are on and consider engaging in a dialogue about a different future.”
The former oilman could have left it there, but he took another question about what had prompted Trump’s statement, in which he said that, if North Korea continued to issue threats to the United States, it would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Tillerson responded, “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last twenty-four hours. And I think Americans should sleep well at night and have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the past few days. . . . What the President was just reaffirming is that the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and its allies, and we will do so.”
The Secretary of State’s intention seemed plain: to defend his volatile boss and suggest that there was method behind his apparent madness, but also to convey to the American public, and to the country’s allies, that nothing fundamental had changed about U.S. policy toward North Korea. The current approach is to ratchet up the diplomatic, economic, and military pressure on Pyongyang, while leaving talks as a viable option for the regime.
Tillerson didn’t explain how it was possible to issue a credible threat to an adversary while also assuring everybody else that the language used in making the threat was only “rhetoric.” But at least he made it sound as if Trump’s statement were part of a thought-out strategy, rather than an irresponsible outburst delivered off the cuff. As the day progressed, however, that narrative started to unravel.
“The White House, including the national-security team, was unaware President Trump was preparing to speak publicly about North Korea when he did so Tuesday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey,” the Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren reported in a piece posted shortly after 8 A.M., Eastern Time. Later in the morning, Glenn Thrush, of the Times, tweeted that Trump had not read his “fire and fury” from prepared notes, as some accounts had suggested, but rather improvised it on the spot. Soon after that, Politico’s Josh Dawsey added, also on Twitter, “ ‘Fire and fury’ from yesterday was not carefully vetted language from Trump, per several ppl with knowledge. ‘Don’t read too much into it.’ ”
At that point, it was hard to know whether to laugh or cry. For months now, one of the few reassuring things about the Trump Administration has been the perception that, when it comes to foreign policy and national security, Trump usually defers to the officials he refers to as “my generals”: H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser; James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense; and John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, who was previously the head of the Department of Homeland Security. But, in this instance, according to these reports, Trump was freelancing on what many experts believe to be the most thorny and dangerous issue he faces: North Korea’s nukes.
Neither McMaster nor Mattis was present in New Jersey when Trump made his bellicose remarks. Kelly was there, and, according to Thrush, he was caught by surprise when Trump made his comments. The news reports made it sound like an Administration in chaos—the very impression that Kelly was hired to dispel. The President had said one thing, and other officials were telling reporters—and, therefore, the public—to discount at least some of it.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon, Mattis issued a public statement from the Pentagon that seemed to echo some of Trump’s language rather than Tillerson’s efforts to downplay it.
“The United States and our allies have the demonstrated capabilities and unquestionable commitment to defend ourselves from an attack,” the statement said. “Kim Jong Un should take heed of the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice, and statements from governments the world over, who agree the DPRK poses a threat to global security and stability. The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
It is important to note that this language was a good deal more precise than Trump’s statement, which had seemed to suggest that U.S. forces might launch a preëmptive nuclear strike on North Korea in response to mere verbal threats. Mattis, by contrast, made it clear that he was talking about how the United States and its allies would respond to “an attack” by Kim’s forces. That is a fundamental difference.
The Defense Secretary appeared to be responding to a report by the North Korean state news agency, which said that the country’s military was examining plans to launch a ballistic missile strike on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific that houses a huge military base. Mattis’s statement didn’t stop there, though. “President Trump was informed of the growing threat last December and on taking office his first orders to me emphasized the readiness of our ballistic missile defense and nuclear deterrent forces,” it went on. “While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth. The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
What was this paragraph meant to convey? There has never been any doubt that the United States has the military capability to destroy North Korea: Kim, we can rest assured, is well aware of this fact. He doesn’t need Trump and Mattis to point it out to him.
Was the intended audience for this part of Mattis’s statement a domestic one—or perhaps even Trump himself? In talking about how the President had ordered him to insure the readiness of the U.S. nuclear forces, the Defense Secretary seemed to be backing up a tweet that Trump sent out on Wednesday morning, in which he said, “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.” He went on to claim—erroneously, according to some fact checkers—that this arsenal “is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.” The last bit of Mattis’s statement also seemed to be carefully phrased. Indeed, in saying that the military forces facing Korea “possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth,” it appeared to be translating Trump’s “fire and fury” line into Pentagon-speak.
In brief, Mattis seemed to be giving the Commander-in-Chief some cover. Did the White House ask him to do this, or did he do it of his own accord? As a strategic thinker, he perhaps considered it a necessary step to preserve the U.S. government’s credibility. But, despite Mattis’s intervention, the over-all impression that this day conveyed to the world was, by now, a familiar one: this is an Administration that sends mixed messages and spends much of its time trying to clean up messes made by the President.