President Donald Trump’s promise that North Korea would face “fire and fury” if it keeps threatening the United States may be causing alarm around the world, but his aides are warning against reading too much into the combative talk.
One White House official described Trump’s comments on Tuesday as “impromptu,” said other senior officials weren’t briefed on the language in advance, and described the president as simply being irritated by Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and belligerent talk.
“I think he just wanted to show North Korea he was tired of it,” this official said.
In private, Trump has asked extensive questions about North Korea but has not shown any move toward an immediate action, the aides and advisers said. He has closely followed news coverage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and disliked his rhetoric after the sanctions, one person who spoke to Trump said.
Trump, the White House official said, was presented at his golf course on Tuesday with a new batch of information on North Korea a few hours before his controversial comments.
The episode encapsulates the Trump era so far: An impatient president prone to exaggeration and unfamiliar with the subtleties of diplomacy fires off bellicose comments; his Cabinet secretaries and advisers scramble to mitigate the damage; and ultimately, allies and adversaries are left struggling with what to believe.
On Wednesday, Trump faced criticism from around the world, especially in Asia, which has watched North Korea’s nuclear progress with trepidation. The latest reports indicate that Pyongyang has reached the stage where it can miniaturize a nuclear weapon to place on a ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Bill English, said Trump’s comments “are not helpful in an environment that is very tense,” according to media reports. The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement urging parties to avoid “escalating the situation with words or actions.”
North Korea responded to Trump’s warnings by saying it would, if attacked, strike U.S. military forces in Guam. Trump, via Twitter, shot back Wednesday morning that America’s nuclear arsenal “is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was traveling in Asia and, by scheduling coincidence, made a stop in Guam, went into clean-up mode — an increasingly familiar posture for him. The secretary downplayed the threat from Pyongyang and said Americans should “sleep well at night.” He also cast Trump’s comments as an attempt to break through to North Korea’s leadership, which itself frequently uses bombastic rhetoric.
“I have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days. I think the president again, as commander in chief, I think he felt it necessary to issue a very strong statement directly to North Korea,” Tillerson told reporters aboard his plane.
Defense Secretary James Mattis followed up on Wednesday with a statement that included harsher language but still stopped short of Trump’s rhetoric.
North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DRPK, “must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” Mattis said.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert downplayed questions about the varying tones in the statements from Trump and his Cabinet secretaries. “We are all singing from the same hymn book,” Nauert said during a briefing with reporters.
Inside the White House, Trump’s language on Tuesday was not taken “too seriously,” one White House adviser said.
Senior aides milled about the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday afternoon, with one group singing “Happy Birthday” on the second floor. “There was no sense of panic,” a senior White House official said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday pushed back against the idea that Trump surprised chief of staff John Kelly and other aides with his “fire and fury” statement.
“Gen. Kelly and others on the NSC team were well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery. The words were his own. The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand,” Sanders told reporters. Kelly and other aides “were clear the president was going to respond to North Korea’s threats following the sanctions with a strong message in no uncertain terms.”
Beyond the Trump bubble, observers and analysts said the president needs to be careful about what he says, especially when dealing with an isolated regime in Pyongyang that is, in many ways, paranoid about the rest of the world.
The fear among experts isn’t that North Korea will launch an unprovoked nuclear strike on the United States, because the regime there knows that the United States would retaliate in a manner that would topple it. The fear is that some sort of miscalculation or misunderstanding could lead to an unintended clash.
“I sure hope @POTUS can distinguish between reality TV and reality. There are millions of lives at stake here,” tweeted David Axelrod, who previously advised former President Barack Obama.
Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer, said that Trump’s stark “fire and fury” phrase may not be typical foreign policy speak, but that it is true to his showmanship style.
“It seemed to me, for some time, he’d been thinking about flashy and incendiary ways to describe military confrontation,” he said. “I think he’s been thinking about that phrase for some time and was waiting for the opportunity to use it.”
Upon handing over the Oval Office to Trump, Obama warned him that North Korea’s nuclear program was a top threat. And while the roots of the North Korean challenge date back well before even Obama, Trump owns it for now.
In a show of his level of interest, Trump was personally involved in a terse statement issued by Tillerson earlier this year about North Korea, according to a senior administration official. “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment,” the statement from April read.
Trump has repeatedly asked aides since then, “What the hell is wrong with this guy,” in the words of one of the aides, referring to Kim. Two weekends ago, Trump showed fury at China over Twitter after a North Korean missile launch, startling his aides.
Despite his engagement with the North Korea issue, Trump is not necessarily winning over any critics.
According to new MorningConsult/Politico poll, taken before Trump’s “fire and fury” comments Tuesday, 62 percent of Americans think relations between the United States and North Korea have gotten worse under Trump — an unwelcome sign for a man who cares strongly about his poll standings.
Nahal Toosi and Steven Shepard contributed to this report.
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