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Opinion Rex Tillerson just erased the reckless red line Trump drew on North Korea

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Americans should have "no concern" about North Korea's threats to the United States on Aug. 9. (Video: The Washington Post)


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday morning defended President Trump’s reckless threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, but make no mistake: In the course of doing so, Tillerson quietly erased the red line that Trump laid down, and redrew it in a relatively more reasonable place.

Tillerson’s comments will in this sense have a calming effect. But they are also cause for a different sort of alarm: They raise additional questions as to why Trump made the comments in the first place; what process went into the creation and delivery of them, if any; and what will — or won’t — be done to ensure that there is a sane process in place to shape further comments from Trump as this crisis unfolds.

Tillerson, returning from Asia, defended Trump’s comments this way:

“What the president is doing is 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.”

In this sense, Tillerson stood by Trump’s threat. But Tillerson also sought to reassure Americans by saying this:

“I think what the president was just reaffirming is that the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so. So the American people should sleep well at night.”

Tillerson also said “the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has the unquestionable ability to defend itself … and its allies.” But that subtly — and meaningfully — shifts the red line Trump drew.

This is the moment of truth on North Korea

Don’t give Trump too much credit for disrupting international relations on North Korea. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Trump, recall, said this Tuesday: “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.” Trump then once again alluded to Kim Jong Un’s threats, and reiterated that they “will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

In other words, Trump clearly stated — twice — that any further threats from North Korea would be met with a response that dwarfs any show of military power ever seen in human history, including, presumably, America’s dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan. Anything Trump does, or threatens to do, will be bigger and stronger than what came before it, including nuclear annihilation.

But Tillerson backed off of that. He recast Trump’s comments to mean that we will respond to defend ourselves from any attack, not respond with force to any further threats. (Indeed, North Korea crossed the red line Trump drew only hours later.)

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“Tillerson has drawn the line in a more traditional and reasonable place,” Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear nonproliferation expert who tweets as ArmsControlWonk, told me Wednesday. “The question is: What did Trump think he was saying? My guess is he didn’t think about it at all. That’s the problem. … He doesn’t pay any attention to word choice.”

Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threat is a rhetorical grenade

As many have already observed, by vowing an overwhelming nuclear response to continued threats from North Korea, Trump sounded a lot like North Korea itself, employing a formulation that is both vague and menacing, which in combination increases the risk of miscalculation and, with it, unspeakable horror. Tillerson plainly tried to undo that Wednesday by redrawing the line more sharply, while defending the impulse behind Trump’s comments.

But that still leaves us guessing in a way that raises worrisome unknowns about what’s to come. We don’t know what Trump really meant. What has now been confirmed, however, is that Trump will use vague and reckless language in the most dangerous conceivable contexts. “If one had any doubt that Trump was going to be incredibly reckless with language at the worst possible times, he just did it,” Lewis said. “Tillerson’s efforts suggest that everyone around Trump knows that was crazy.”

But that raises an additional question: What process went into the creation and delivery of this statement in the first place? Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard suggested Wednesday morning that the White House, including Trump’s national security team, was not aware that Trump was going to deliver this statement. And the New York Times adds, alarmingly, that “White House officials did not respond to questions about how much planning went into his brief statement.”

This urgently needs to be teased out. We need to know more about the process, if any, that went into the creation of this statement, and we’ll need to know more about this process going forward, as Trump delivers more similar statements in what looks like an escalating situation.

It’s not clear what to do about North Korea. But it’s clear what not to do.

“No administration is of one mind on anything, so process determines how different preferences are aggregated together in presidential statements,” Lewis says. “Trump doesn’t choose words with any care whatsoever. If you don’t understand the process, you’re not going to understand what’s been agreed to … by broad inter-agency agreement.” Or if there was any such process at all.

UPDATE: The New York Times has now confirmed that Trump improvised his “fire and fury” threat, with no input from top national security advisers. Which should only exacerbate the process fears discussed above.

* NORTH KOREA RESPONDS: After Trump vowed that any further threats from North Korea would be met with “fire and fury,” North Korea responded with a statement:

Undaunted, North Korea warned several hours later that it was considering a strike that would create “an enveloping fire” around Guam, the western Pacific island where the United States operates a critical Air Force base … “The U.S. should clearly face up to the fact that the ballistic rockets of the Strategic Force of the [North’s Korean People’s Army] are now on constant standby, facing the Pacific Ocean and pay deep attention to their azimuth angle for launch,” the statement said.

That means North Korea has already crossed Trump’s red line.

* HOW MUCH PLANNING WENT INTO TRUMP’S STATEMENT? The New York Times’s Julie Davis points out that Trump’s “fire and fury” lines carried echoes of President Harry Truman’s comments after a nuclear bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Note this:

It is not clear whether Mr. Trump intended the historical parallel … but it was a stark break with decades of more measured presidential responses to brewing foreign conflicts.
“It’s hard to think of a president using more extreme language during crisis like this before,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “Presidents usually try to use language that is even more moderate than what they may be feeling in private, because they’ve always been worried that their language might escalate a crisis.”

As we mentioned above, what went into this statement is something that urgently needs to be teased out by more reporting.

* TRUMP PUTS HIS CREDIBILITY ON THE LINE: CNN’s Stephen Collinson makes a key point:

By accident or design, Trump established a red line. … By making such an explicit threat to North Korea, on camera, the President also invested his own personal prestige into the center of the crisis. The next time Kim makes some kind of threat to the US or its allies, Trump will immediately come under pressure to make North Korea pay a price — or risk having his authority exposed as hollow.

Tillerson has already erased this red line. But for how long? We all know how heavily the prospect of looking weak weighs on Trump.

* AP: TRUMP SOUNDS A LOT LIKE NORTH KOREA: The Associated Press’ diplomatic writers make a striking point:

The type of threats Trump issued are routine from the isolated, Stalinist state, which often speaks of turning neighbor South Korea’s capital into a “sea of fire” and warns of “merciless” and unprecedented attacks on its enemies, including nuclear strikes on the United States. The bombast is so frequent that it is difficult to judge the seriousness … Trump, too, has earned a reputation for exaggeration and sometimes unsubstantiated policy directives, often delivered via Twitter.

Awesome. Unbalanced bombast and posturing from both sides should really minimize the risk of miscalculation.

* TRUMP’S COMMENTS COULD EASILY PROVOKE AN OVERREACTION: The Post editorial board asks what might happen if Kim Jong Un takes Trump’s “fire and fury” threat seriously:

Mr. Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” may sound like hype to American ears, but the words could be heard quite differently by others, such as Mr. Kim, the belligerent leader of a nuclear North Korea. Mr. Trump’s language could easily be misunderstood — he didn’t say precisely what would lead to “fire and fury” except for North Korea’s “threats”— and the upshot could be miscalculation or, heaven forbid, the kind of accidental entry into conflict that has haunted the globe since the dawn of the atomic age.

There is a great deal of commentary about what Trump intended or meant, but how Trump’s words might be received, irrespective of intent, also matters in evaluating their wisdom.

* YES, TRUMP’S BASE IS SHRINKING: Politico’s Steven Shepard reports that a new Politico-Morning Consult poll finds that Trump’s approval is 40 percent, which means he is down in this poll, which has generally had higher Trump approval numbers than others. The larger context:

Trump says his base of support is “bigger and stronger than ever before.” But his claim is contradicted by a steady stream of recent polling that shows the share of Americans that approve of Trump’s job performance is shrinking, along with the share of Americans most enthusiastic about his presidency. However you measure the president’s base, it has diminished, not increased, in the 7 months he’s been in office.

As Shepard notes, the Morning Consult poll shows that those who strongly approved of Trump last year are now evenly divided between those who strongly approve and only approve somewhat, also a clear erosion.

* AND THE WALL STREET JOURNAL GOES AFTER BANNON: The Wall Street Journal editorial board fires a hard shot at senior Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, urging chief of staff John F. Kelly to ask why Bannon’s media allies are suddenly trying to oust national security adviser H.R. McMaster:

Mr. Trump issued a statement of support for Lt. Gen. McMaster late on Friday, which in a better White House would settle the matter. But rather than question the general’s loyalties, perhaps Mr. Kelly should question Mr. Bannon’s. The former Breitbart publisher has been a White House survivor, but his warring habits have also been responsible for much of the White House dysfunction.

Note the direct suggestion that Bannon’s loyalties lie elsewhere. One expects this will intensify if Bannon doesn’t once again go into hiding for some time.