President Trump regularly demonstrates a great capacity for playing fast and loose with the truth. By one calculation, he publicly lied or exaggerated at least once daily during the 40 days following his inauguration. Politicians routinely bend reality or, in some cases, break with it entirely. But there is no precedent for applying such casual disregard to nuclear weapons, as Trump did this week. For good reason.
Trump garnered international headlines Tuesday when he declared that any further threats from North Korea would prompt “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” His bluster followed a Washington Post report that the Hermit Kingdom had developed a nuclear weapon small enough to deploy on a missile. Lest anyone doubt the president’s intentions, he followed up Wednesday morning with a tweet calling the US nuclear arsenal “far stronger and more power than ever before” and unjustifiably crediting himself with its renovation and modernization.
Alarming, yes. But less troubling than the rhetoric itself is how Trump arrived at it. The Weekly Standard and The New York Times reported that the extemporaneous “fire and fury” line caught senior aides off guard. And the arsenal tweets are misleading at best, and at least in part demonstrably false. In other words, Trump opted to discuss nuclear escalation with the same reckless abandon he’s shown for crowd sizes, voter fraud, and phone calls from foreign leaders or the Boy Scouts. Presidents have spoken with force before—George W. Bush, for example, vowed to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” and Richard Nixon used “madman theory” as a cornerstone of his North Vietnam dealings. But when it comes to national security and nuclear weapons, presidents typically choose their words with extreme care. To do otherwise invites potentially catastrophic consequences.
Free and Uneasy
Let’s start with Trump’s off-the-cuff promise to rain military might upon North Korea should it make another threat. While the strong phrasing worries observers, harsh words in and of themselves don’t necessarily mean calamity ahead. In fact, they often serve a strategic purpose, especially against a country that has stymied all efforts to curtail its nuclear ambitions. “I may not have used those exact words, but I’m glad he spoke forcefully,” one GOP national security aide says. “Nothing has gotten through to them—maybe this does.”
One needn’t look too far back in history for parallels. US General Curtis LeMay famously threatened to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age,” for example. “I think it’s important not to overstate the rarity of the language,” says Scott Sigmund Gartner, director of the Penn State School of International Affairs. What’s unusual here, however, is the instinct to improvise so loaded a decree. While that strategy often plays well for Trump when discussing domestic issues, it carries far greater weight when discussing an existential threat.
“When it comes to nuclear weapons, a whole other level of deliberation and careful selection of language is implied,” Gartner says. Though, in this case, seemingly not attained.
Wednesday’s presidential tweets compound the issue. “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” Trump wrote, apparently referring to a legally mandated review of US nuclear posture that he signed on January 27. Beyond the fact that it was not actually his first order—that distinction goes to his Day One kickoff to repeal Obamacare—it grossly misrepresents Trump’s role in revitalizing the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
“The professionals of the nuclear security enterprise are incredibly dedicated to their mission, and they will dutifully execute any direction from the president agnostic of political ideologies. However, we’ve simply yet to receive them,” one Department of Energy official says. “As such, the idea that the president has delivered on some grand vision for nuclear modernization is extremely exaggerated and misleading.”
Trump’s shenanigans didn’t trigger an international incident, even if they did prompt Kim Jong-un to threaten Guam. But his lack of precision worries close observers of North Korea. While Americans may have long since learned not to read too much into Trump’s more outrageous statements, the rest of the world has not—especially those on the receiving end of his pronouncements.
“Obviously the question is whether there is a strategy behind the president’s rhetoric. That’s always important. As you ratchet up your rhetoric, there’s always the possibility that your adversary will call your bluff,” says PJ Crowley, former assistant secretary of state and author of Red Line, a look at US foreign policy in the context of failing states. “It remains unclear if the Trump administration really has a clear path forward.”
Two issues intertwine when Trump spouts off nuclear weapons without much strategic thought: escalation and credibility, both of which seem to be heading in the wrong direction.
“A lie is a lie, and he’s proven to be the master of lies. But we’re not playing tiddlywinks here,” says John Tierney, a former congressman and the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “This is serious stuff and an existential threat. His pathology here puts us at great risk.”
Understanding the nature of that risk requires understanding how North Korea sees itself in the world. “It’s very reckless and very dangerous for Trump to be making off-the-cuff comments,” says Jenny Town, managing editor of North Korea watchdog 38 North and assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS. ”North Koreans already feel that the US is a threat to them.”
That context makes it harder for North Korea—or US allies in the region, like South Korea and Japan—to dismiss Trump’s statements as mere bluster, or to believe Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he offers reassurances to that effect. (Remember, too, that several government positions that might help mitigate these conflagurations remain vacant.) A country that fears an existential threat can’t afford to brush off statements from the source of that perceived threat.
“The primary danger is not that Kim Jong-un is going to take a suicidal act. It’s that something that this president says precipitously or unknowingly, or something that he does, is going to make Kim Jong-un believe he’s in a situation that he may have to respond,” Tierney says.
‘A lie is a lie, and he’s proven to be the master of lies. But we’re not playing tiddlywinks here.’ — John Tierney, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
That Trump’s statements implied the possibility of preemptive attack underscores that exact danger. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a fiery statement of his own when he clarified that North Korean “actions,” and not “threats,” would provoke a US response. The distinction makes all the difference.
“I think Trump’s rhetoric does push North Korea toward miscalculation,” Towns says. “The miscalculation is, if they really believe that the US is about to attack, what might they do to preempt that attack? That’s the last thing we want.”
Crowley credits the Trump administration with prioritizing the North Korea issue and with successfully pressuring China to take a harder line toward its neighbor. Rather than building on that hard work, though, inexact speech and prevarications threaten Trump’s credibility, and by extension the credibility of the US. “It’s unlikely the Trump administration has been able to think its way through all of the difficult questions that surround the North Korea problem,” Crowley says.
It hasn’t, though, stopped Trump from making broad proclamations about it.
“That’s the big concern here,” says Gartner. “The president says something. It’s pretty clear that it would never happen, but North Korea doesn’t have a full understanding of the American national security establishment, and takes the president at his word.”
That, then, is where Trump’s rhetoric has brought the world: The biggest threat might be that someone actually believes what he says.