For months, worried observers of the Trump administration have wondered what would happen when the president first faced a bona fide, urgent international crisis out of his own control.
This week, the world seems terrifyingly close to getting an answer.
On Monday, the United Nations Security Council approved new sanctions on North Korea. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the North Korean regime has for the first time produced a miniaturized warhead that can be attached to a nuclear missile. And later on Tuesday, speaking at a briefing on the opioid crisis, President Trump offered an unusually warlike, blunt statement.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement, and as I said they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
At a moment of nuclear brinksmanship like this, any citizen of the United States wants a few things from a leader. You want someone who they can trust to tell the truth, and who foreign leaders view as credible, so that threats and statements alike are taken seriously. You want someone who is known to be able to carefully sift through a lot of evidence and assess upsides from downsides. You want someone who has a team of expert advisers whose judgment he trusts and takes seriously. And you want someone who is able to take bad news.
The problem is that Trump has none of these characteristics. He has shown himself to be prolifically dishonest. The president has lied to the public about matters great and small, from the petty (the size of his inauguration crowd) to the serious (accusations of wiretapping, his own position on major matters) to the absurd (outright denying things he said publicly). As a result, Americans are in no position to trust the things he might tell them in a crisis, whether those remarks are delivered from behind the Resolute desk or via tweet.
As if that were not bad enough, foreign leaders can’t trust what he says either. An adversary has no idea whether to take threats from Trump seriously (to say nothing of literally). He’s a man who has made empty threats throughout his career, repeatedly threatening to sue people who say and do things he doesn’t like. In many cases, he has not followed through on those threats. If you’re North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, why should you believe that his threats of force are any more real? Trump’s strategy with North Korea has been compared to Nixon’s “madman theory,” in which he wanted enemies to believe he was capable of anything, because he was insane. An equally, or more, likely outcome is that North Korea will conclude that Trump is capable of nothing, based on past results.
The dangers are higher since Trump’s counterpart is Kim, himself an untrustworthy and unpredictable interlocutor prone to empty threats. “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess,” Kathy Gilsinan wrote in April.
But it’s a problem for allies, too, since the U.S. would want friends in a hot war or in a diplomatic crisis. They also have no reason to trust any assurances that the president makes. As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg warned on the eve of the election, “Nuclear crises call for, among other things, the most exacting possible calibration of language. This is not a skill Donald Trump would bring to government service.”
Trump’s promises of “fire and fury” do not instill new confidence. His literally inflammatory threat is particularly baffling because of the parameters he laid out: The president warned not that North Korea would be punished fiercely for firing a missile at the U.S., or for conducting a missile test, but indeed for issuing a threat. But that’s inevitable. Threats are North Korea’s major export product. Trump, who ridiculed Barack Obama for allowing Syria to cross his “red line” of chemical-weapons use, is establishing a red line that will almost certainly be crossed—perhaps very soon, if Kim is in a sporting mood.
But even setting aside the public-messaging side of the ledger, should citizens have faith in Trump’s decision-making process? Throughout his life, he has bragged about his reliance on his gut instincts rather than on careful study of the details of a case. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate the limitations of that gut. He has a tendency to believe outrageously fake stories, and his staff is reportedly wary of giving him unflattering and unhappy news because he reacts volcanically to it. When told he cannot do something, his impulse is often to insist on doing it.
Those impulses do not serve the nation well in a nuclear standoff—a situation where, as Mark Bowden laid out in the July/August Atlantic, there are no good solutions, but only least-worst solutions. As Defense Secretary James Mattis has put it, “A conflict in North Korea … would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” While some optimistic reports have suggested that new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly can and already has imposed better discipline and information-circulation systems in the White House, the public has little material evidence of changes (really, only Anthony Scaramucci’s firing) and plenty of signs that Trump remains Trump, from his weird Twitter assault on Senator Richard Blumenthal to his remarks Tuesday.
The reasoning behind Trump’s threat is difficult to grasp. Senator Lindsey Graham argued last week that the benefit of a war would be to keep North Korea from acquiring a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. But if it has already happened, it’s too late for a preventive war, and the only advantage is to be the first to strike. Military experts are dubious that the U.S. could knock out the entire North Korean nuclear capability in one, quick assault.
Perhaps the best hope for the world is that Trump, who is easily distracted and has a short attention span, will in this case once more be distracted. That would at least allow the immediate tension to dissipate, though the longer-term problem of a nuclear North Korea would remain. Of course, dropping the promise of American retaliation would only increase Trump’s credibility problem, offering adversaries another example of an empty threat.
A situation like this was easily foreseeable, and in fact foreseen. Since successive presidents have failed to effectively curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, it was practically inevitable that the 45th president would face this very dilemma. Senator Marco Rubio, a rival of Trump’s in the GOP primary, said he could not be trusted with nuclear weapons. Hillary Clinton ran an ad focused on the danger that Trump would start a nuclear war. Trump is in a box of his own creation, and the American people, by virtue of their choices at the ballot box, are in it with him.