Trump’s Threat to North Korea Was Improvised

August 10, 2017



WASHINGTON — President Trump’s aides knew he planned to deliver a tough message to North Korea on Tuesday, but they did not expect a threat that rivaled the apocalyptic taunts often used by his target, Kim Jong-un.

The president’s language, which aides say he had used in private, escalated the long-running dispute with North Korea to a new level and left members of the Trump administration scrambling on Wednesday to explain what he meant.

But the process, or lack of one, that led to the ad-libbed comments embodied Mr. Trump’s overall approach to foreign policy, an improvisational style that often leaves his national security team in the dark about what he is going to say or do, according to several people with direct knowledge of how the episode unfolded.

The president was in a confrontational mood on Tuesday afternoon after The Washington Post reported that Pyongyang had developed nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on ballistic missiles. His team assumed that he would be asked about North Korea during a scheduled media appearance tied to a meeting the president was planning to hold at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., about the opioid epidemic.

But during a conference call beforehand that focused on North Korea, Mr. Trump did not offer a preview of what he planned to say — and aides did not press the president, who resists being told what to say, even on a tinderbox issue that has induced his predecessors to seek the safety of a script.

He told his aides only that he wanted to signal to Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, that he was not backing down — while turning up the pressure he has tried to place on China to tame its troublesome neighbor and on-and-off ally.

Mr. Trump’s aides braced as he began to speak at the opioid event — his arms folded, jaw set and eyes flitting on what appeared to be a single page of talking points set before him on the conference table where he was sitting. The piece of paper, as it turned out, was a fact sheet on the opioid crisis.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Mr. Trump told reporters in remarks aired on television and broadcast around the globe. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Trump’s national security team was “well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery.”

“The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand,” she said. The words he used, she added, “were his own.”

And they revealed what some longtime associates of Mr. Trump say is a simmering frustration with the velvet handcuffs slapped on him by John F. Kelly, his new White House chief of staff, who has cracked down on walk-in visitors to the Oval Office and keeps tabs on some of the president’s after-hours phone calls to ensure that he is not being fed bad information or reckless advice.

Mr. Trump has embraced the new, more disciplined approach of the former Marine general, but he has made it clear that he will not cede control of what he says or tweets to anybody. If nothing else, Tuesday’s statement proved that he cannot be muzzled by his staff or decorous diplomatic protocol.

The president, people close to him say, believes he has a better feel for Mr. Kim than his advisers do. He thinks of Mr. Kim as someone used to pushing people around, and Mr. Trump thinks he needs to show that he cannot be pushed.

The episode also reflects an evolving and unsettled approach to one of the world’s most dangerous hot spots as Mr. Trump and his team debate diplomatic, economic and military options, none of them particularly attractive.

The president’s aides are divided on North Korea, as on other issues, with national security veterans like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, on one side and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and his allies on the other.

While General McMaster and Mr. Mattis consider North Korea a pre-eminent threat that requires a tough response, Mr. Bannon and others in the nationalist wing argue that it is really just a subset of the administration’s conflict with China and that Mr. Trump should not give more prominence to an unstable rogue operator like Mr. Kim.

In the North Korea debate, like a similar one over Afghanistan, Mr. Bannon has been arguing against what his side considers the overly aggressive approach of the “war party” of General McMaster. While Mr. Bannon has his own channel to the president, he has been shut out of most formal discussions of North Korea by the national security team.

But neither camp, the hawks or doves, advocated language like “fire and fury,” according to the people involved.

Among those taken by surprise, they said, was Mr. Kelly, who has accompanied the president on his working vacation.

The “fire and fury,” line, which echoed biblical passages and President Harry S. Truman’s statement after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, was Mr. Trump’s idea — despite similarities to the end-of-days style of his chief speechwriter, Stephen Miller, people with knowledge of the situation said.

Mr. Trump has used the phrase repeatedly in private to express his anger at North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons — one of the few public policy problems he has been focused on since his prepolitical days in the 1990s.

After his comments on Tuesday, Mr. Trump headed into an hourlong meeting on opioids, but his national security team huddled to figure out how to proceed. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, who has been trying to induce Pyongyang to negotiate, became the obvious choice to calm the waters, which he did during a refueling stop in Guam, the same island threatened by North Korea.

Mr. Tillerson told reporters that “Americans should sleep well at night,” and that nothing indicated that relations with North Korea had “dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

For his part, Mr. Trump seemed pleased with the uproar caused by his remarks, and was in good spirits on Wednesday. And some of his aides did not back off from the sharp language.

“He’s saying don’t test America and don’t test Donald J. Trump,” Sebastian Gorka, a hard-line adviser and one of the president’s favorite surrogates, told Fox News on Wednesday. “We are not just the superpower. We were a superpower, we are now a hyperpower. Nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close to challenging our military capabilities.”



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