Washington Post columnist David Ignatius deconstructs President Donald Trump's fiery rhetoric on North Korea. Don't give Trump too much credit for disrupting international relations. (Adriana Usero,Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

THE MORNING PLUM:

New White House chief of staff John F. Kelly gets his Time magazine cover this week, and the piece is well worth a read. It depicts a man who seems to believe that at this point, changing President Trump’s behavior is beside the point — instead, he seems to be rushing to put in place a process that can prevent the White House, in the grip of Trump’s penchant for disruption and chaos, from doing too much damage to the country before it’s too late.

Kelly would obviously not put it that way, but it is hard to escape that conclusion from the bulk of the reporting in the piece. This one sentence, buried at the very bottom, sums it up:

Trump gets bored with people easily and has a history of blaming aides for his own missteps. Even Kelly may not be immune. One former aide who has fallen from grace suggested it was only a matter of time. But Kelly is clear-eyed about the mission: it is not so much about “fixing” Trump as it is earning the President’s trust so that he can make repairs to White House operations quickly, before an international incident tests the team.

That is a striking bit of insight into Kelly’s thinking on its own. But it is made all the more extraordinary by the fact that this international incident is now upon us. Presumably after this piece had been largely completed, Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it continues to threaten us, language that was reportedly improvised by Trump, with no input from any of his top national security staffers.

The chaos of this situation is neatly captured by some important new reporting in The Post. We learn that even some Trump advisers and allies are worried about the “undisciplined presidential eruption” and “lack of coordination” that led up to the statement. And note this:

Another senior White House official voiced frustration that Trump’s use of the phrase “fire and fury” had been interpreted as a depiction of nuclear strikes and said his words should not necessarily be taken literally.

“People on TV who know nothing about North Korea are claiming this is nuclear escalation,” this official said. “ ‘Fire and fury’ doesn’t always mean nuclear. It can mean any number of things. It is as if people see him [Trump] as an unhinged madman.”

Asked whether Trump came up with the phrase “fire and fury” on his own, the official replied, “Absolutely.”

The argument that “fire and fury doesn’t always mean nuclear” is odd, given that Trump himself said his response would be “like the world has never seen,” and the United States of course previously dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. But the more important point here is that Trump’s own senior officials are now in the position of arguing that his language isn’t as terrifyingly crazy as it sounds. They are in this position because the language both threatened maximal destruction and lacked precision, which is the opposite of what is needed in an extremely volatile situation, and because there was no serious process or input that led to the creation of this statement.

President Trump's political rhetoric on North Korea has differed from before he declared his candidacy to now. (Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

And if people are reading Trump’s words in their most horrifying light, that’s only because they have come to see him as an “unhinged madman,” but don’t worry, he really isn’t an unhinged madman. This is their defense!

This is the situation to which Kelly is supposed to bring order and sanity. But in this context, it’s noteworthy that Kelly himself was caught off guard by this language. As the New York Times reports, Kelly was “among those taken by surprise” by it.

Incidentally, the difficulties here run much deeper than Trump. In cleaning up the mess Trump’s “fire and fury” statement made, top officials sounded conflicting messages, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offering a much more calming message, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned that North Korea “risked the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” The Times reports that these differing tones reflect meaningful and deep divisions among Trump’s advisers about how to respond to the North Korea threat.

Policy disagreements are to be expected within administrations, of course. But if anything, these divisions — exposed as they were by the need to scramble in the wake of Trump’s reckless improvising in the face of a combustible international crisis — underscore the need for a more rigorous process leading up to such presidential statements. This could grow increasingly urgent as this crisis escalates, so we can only hope Kelly succeeds. But he appears to be far from accomplishing his mission, as he himself defines it.

* DEMOCRATS ESCALATE ATTACKS ON TRUMP SABOTAGE OF AFFORDABLE CARE ACT: The Democratic group American Bridge is releasing a new report detailing all the ways in which the Trump administration continues to try to undermine the ACA. It includes a compilation of criticism of the moves by stakeholders, a look at their drastic consequences, and polls showing Americans will hold the GOP responsible for those consequences.

American Bridge is also launching digital ads pressuring GOP members of Congress to stop the Trump sabotage. All this underscores that the political battle will now shift to one over Trump’s efforts to undermine the law, which he continues to imagine will somehow force Democrats to capitulate to him in some vague way.

* AMERICANS BACK RUSSIA PROBE: A new CNN poll finds that 60 percent of Americans think Russian electoral meddling is a serious matter that should be investigated, vs. only 38 percent who say it’s about discrediting the Trump presidency. And 70 percent say the special counsel should be able to investigate Trump’s finances.

Interestingly, 23 percent of Republicans say it’s a serious matter, which is not nothing, and 41 percent of them say the special counsel should be able to look at his finances. More base erosion?

* DEMOCRATS DRAW LINE AGAINST TRUMP ON TAXES: CNN reports that Democrats are coalescing behind a strategy for the coming tax reform fight that would draw a line against anything that benefits the top one percent. According to Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer:

“Donald Trump campaigned as a populist, for God’s sake. It’s a different world than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The idea that people will support huge tax cuts for the rich when they’re given a crumb won’t work anymore,” Schumer told CNN.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Trump voters respond when Trump starts tweeting and holding populist rallies to tout a specific plan to cut taxes for the rich and corporations.

* TRUMP KEEPS UP ASSAULT ON MITCH McCONNELL: Good morning, Mr. President:

Why, it’s almost as if Trump wants you to forget that he went all-in on this fiasco along with McConnell, breaking a whole bunch of his own promises along the way.

President Trump's relationship with Congress has become more and more strained as he struggles to find legislative wins. Now he's going after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a key leader in his own party. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

* TRUMP UNDERMINES GOP AGENDA: NBC’s First Read crew makes this observation about Trump’s continued attacks on McConnell:

Republicans, who control all branches of government, still have plenty on their to-do list – tax reform, passing a budget, funding the government and raising the debt ceiling. But all of those items become much harder to achieve when there’s public conflict between the president and the Senate majority leader.

No worries. If we go into default and an economic calamity ensues, Trump can tweet that it’s all McConnell’s fault, and he’ll be just fine.

* TRUMP KEEPS DISSEMBLING ABOUT IMMIGRATION: Trump is justifying his push to slash legal immigration by claiming low-skilled immigrants put “substantial pressure on American workers.” Michelle Ye Hee Lee looks at the data and concludes it’s a massive exaggeration:

Trump exaggerates the impact of immigration on U.S. workers’ wages by saying that the immigration of low-skilled workers has created substantial pressures on American workers, taxpayers and resources. Over time, immigrants are a net positive to the U.S. economy. As Trump noted, there are subgroups of low-education low-skilled native workers who are affected by the influx of low-skilled immigrants. But … immigration is not the only factor that contributes to lower wages among those subgroups of workers.

Trump professes concern about these “low-skilled native workers,” but why is it that slashing legal immigration is the only concrete policy he has embraced, with nothing on trade or infrastructure?

* AND TRUMP’S BOMBAST MAY HELP NORTH KOREA’S KIM: Mark Bowden has a fascinating piece explaining the foundational myth that helps Kim Jong Un remain in power:

The myth holds that Korea and the Kim dynasty are one and the same. It is built almost entirely on the promise of standing up to a powerful and menacing foreign enemy. The more looming the threat — and Trump excels at looming — the better the narrative works for Kim Jong Un. Nukes are needed to repel this threat … if not for him, the United States would have invaded long ago.

Funny how that works.