President Donald Trump on Sunday seemed to undercut his own secretary of state and escalate the ongoing nuclear crisis with North Korea, tweeting that Rex Tillerson’s efforts to negotiate with Kim Jong Un’s regime were essentially useless.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…,” Trump tweeted, adding, “…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
The president’s remarks seemed to defy a cardinal rule of international diplomacy — maintaining a unified front amid ongoing diplomatic efforts — and came as Tillerson was returning from a trip to China. But the tweets also seemed in line with a good cop-bad cop approach to foreign policy that some Trump administration officials say is helpful but which his critics condemn as dangerous and confused.
Tillerson said Saturday that the United States was in direct communication with North Korea in an effort to reduce tensions between the two longtime foes. “The whole situation is a bit overheated right now,” said Tillerson, according to media reports from China. “If North Korea would stop firing its missiles, that would calm things down a lot.”
Trump’s tweet drew some startled reactions in the diplomatic field.
“Diplomacy not a favor we dispense but a critical national security tool for ourselves,” tweeted Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Potus truly misguided here-& SecState should resign.”
Former Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power was harsher. “This is life-or-death presidential malpractice,” she tweeted. “How could any diplomat (or human) tolerate being treated as Tillerson is? How could any other country take seriously the assurance that America seeks a peaceful solution?”
Some wondered what the president hoped to accomplish. “I see no benefit whatsoever of doing this,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “It’s just more Trump irresponsibly escalating for no real reason.”
Other observers were struck by how Trump praised Tillerson while simultaneously seeming to cut him off at the knees.
“He did refer to Tillerson as ‘our wonderful Secretary of State,’ but the message nevertheless undercuts him and underlines the gap between Tillerson and the White House,” said a Republican former State Department official.
Some Trump aides have said that the discordant foreign policy voices emanating from the administration are intentionally out of sync — that Trump likes a set-up where some officials use harsher, tougher rhetoric than others. It’s a good cop-bad cop routine that, administration officials say, is designed to keep enemies on their toes. Besides Trump, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has often employed harsher language than Tillerson.
With North Korea, however, such a strategy may not work. The regime in Pyongyang has long cast the U.S. as a major threat that justifies its nuclear ambitions, and Trump’s rhetoric may merely underscore that threat. It’s possible that even if Kim wants to resolve the current crisis diplomatically, he might feel compelled to respond to the harshest voices on the Trump team, ruling out talks and pursuing a bigger nuclear arsenal.
Neither the State Department nor Tillerson’s aides immediately responded to a request for comment. However, R.C. Hammond, a communications adviser for Tillerson, tweeted: “Message to Rex? Try message to Pyongyang: Step up to the diplomatic table.”
Hammond also shot back at people urging Tillerson to quit. “Let’s resign the idea of resignation,” he wrote in one of a barrage of midday Sunday tweets defending his boss and the president.
Diplomatic observers also worried that Trump’s tweets may be sending a message to North Korea that he’s leaning toward a military option to take out the country’s nuclear arsenal or even its regime, a possibility some fear could lead to catastrophic results. Tillerson has repeatedly said the U.S. wants a diplomatic resolution, with the caveat that North Korea must eventually give up its nuclear dreams.
On Saturday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “Despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting the collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilizing forces north of the DMZ, North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearization.”
On Sunday, Nauert tweeted: “Diplomatic channels are open for #KimJongUn for now. They won’t be open forever.”
Hammond and Nauert’s tweets indicated that the State Department had decided the best way to manage the fallout from Trump’s tweets was to say the administration’s patience is not unlimited.
Trump has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of North Korea as it ratchets up its weapons program. “Rocket Man” is how Trump has been referring to North Korea’s leader, who took power six years ago after the death of his father.
Later Sunday, Trump tweeted about “Rocket Man,” though his statement reflected some confusion as to how long he’d been in power: “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”
Trump also has a history of undercutting his Cabinet secretaries, especially Tillerson, in public.
In June, for instance, as Tillerson tried to take an even-handed approach to a diplomatic rupture between Qatar and a group of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia, Trump, in public remarks, seemed to side with the Saudis. Trump also has been unhappy with Tillerson’s advice that he continue to certify that Iran is living up to the nuclear deal it reached with the U.S. and other world powers.
But despite growing speculation that Tillerson will quit, he has persisted in his role as the nation’s chief diplomat. During the main session of the U.N. General Assembly in September, Tillerson aides were busy defending him and insisting he’s not planning to quit anytime soon.
Just over a week ago, Tillerson himself addressed the rumors that he was thinking of exiting the administration, telling ABC News: “We have a secretary of state currently, and I think he’s planning to hang around.”
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