Shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wanted to allay fears about President Trump's escalating rhetoric about inflicting “fire and fury” on North Korea. Tillerson said he didn't see an “imminent threat” from Pyongyang and that Americans should “sleep well at night.” He said Trump was just speaking Kim Jong Un's language. He said the U.S. isn't moving closer to a military option.
And then Trump started tweeting — or more accurately, retweeting.
Trump doubled down on his own rhetoric by retweeting “Fox and Friends” links. One of them mentioned U.S. Air Force jets in Guam that were ready to “fight tonight.” Two others played up Trump's tough rhetoric against the “rogue nation.”
And then came these:
Those are two very different messages emanating from the State Department and the White House. On the one hand, Tillerson is downplaying the likelihood of a conflict; on the other, Trump is pumping out his chest in a big way — even talking openly about his ability to conduct nuclear war. Tillerson seems wary of the impression Trump left with his “fire and fury” comment Tuesday; Trump seems downright happy with it.
It's entirely possible this is the game the Trump administration has decided to play with this — a little “Good Cop, Bad Cop,” if you will. Perhaps Trump is again employing the “Madman Theory” of foreign policy, making adversaries believe he's completely unpredictable and capable of anything.
Barton Swaim had a good piece on this back in December, recalling Richard Nixon's own toying with the approach in Asia:
The two men’s styles may converge at one significant point, however, on the matter of foreign relations. Like Trump, Nixon was concerned to keep his adversaries guessing about his motives and temperament. Nixon never wanted the Soviets to feel confident that they knew what he would do, or that he wouldn’t do something outrageous or irrational. His famous term for this tactic, recalled by H.R. Haldeman in his posthumously published diary, was the “madman theory.” Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese, with whom the United States was negotiating a peace agreement, to feel a sense of apprehension about what the president might do if pushed to the brink.
The downside here is that the “madman” also risks looking like a madman to his own people — in a situation in which the enemy has nuclear weapons. Having the president tweet about his nukes and going to war “tonight” won't allay many fears that Americans have about the likelihood of war and the temperament of the man with his finger on the nuclear button.
Those fears are very real. A CBS News poll released Tuesday morning, before the news that North Korea had obtained the ability to put miniaturized nuclear warheads inside its intercontinental ballistic missiles, showed 6 in 10 Americans were “uneasy” about Trump's ability to handle the North Korea situation. During the 2016 campaign, the nuclear button question was one of Trump's worst in polling, with Americans preferring Hillary Clinton's stewardship of the nuclear arsenal by 22 points.
The problem with playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” is that you have to be convinced that the Good Cop (Tillerson, in this case) may actually have some authority over the situation or at least have some sway over the Bad Cop (Trump). But basically everything we know about how the Trump administration operates suggests the president doesn't take advice all that well. And his advisers often seem to be on completely opposite pages from him, even when they are speaking in relatively close proximity.
Which is, yet again, what happened on Wednesday morning. It all may send the desired message to Kim Jong Un. The message it sends to the American people is far less ideal.