It was Arbor Day – because, in 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt issued his “Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States” about the importance of trees. Forestry deserves to be taught in our schools. It isn’t, but the idea is to plant a tree on this day. Or, if not, hug a tree. Everybody likes trees, and no one is afraid of trees, but this day also turned out to be North Korea Day in America. The threat of nuclear war hung in the air, or maybe global thermonuclear war. No one likes that strange little man with the bad haircut who runs North Korea and everyone is afraid of him. He’s developed nukes. He’s developed missiles. If those nukes get small enough and those missiles big enough he can wipe out every city on the west coast of America – and he says he will, because no one respects him – and then they will respect him.
He’s a difficult person, and no one doubts his intentions, as unhinged as they are. We’d retaliate. He and his strange little country would be gone in a flash – a big flash – but his calculation seems to be that the threat of losing Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle will keep us in line – and we will respect him, and maybe give him South Korea or something. This is an impossible situation and fear is appropriate. Fear him, or alternatively, fear Donald Trump.
He seems unhinged too, as this report in the Atlantic seems show:
President Trump says “there is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea.” The comments, which were made to Reuters in an interview, come two days after senior members of his administration, in a joint statement, tried to defuse tensions with the communist state, saying the U.S. remained open to talks.
Trump suggested in the interview that while he would “love to solve things diplomatically … it’s very difficult.”
Trump seems to be saying a second Korean War is probable, but then Trump may not speak for the United States government:
North Korea’s recent missile tests, which are in violation of its international obligations, coupled with its nuclear program, have angered the Trump administration. It prompted Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, to say as recently as six weeks ago that the U.S. would not talk to North Korea until it renounced nuclear weapons; Vice President Mike Pence to declare as over the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea; and to warn Pyongyang “not to test [Trump’s] resolve” after the U.S. fired missiles at a target in Syria in response to a chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime and dropped the “mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan.
That language fueled speculation that the U.S. was preparing for a military operation against North Korea. But earlier this week, Admiral Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee the U.S. should act appropriately “in order to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not his knees.” Those remarks were followed by a joint statement from Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
What were they saying? Don’t listen to Trump, listen to us? This gets confusing:
Amid the tensions, the U.S. has also tried to assuage the concerns of its two main allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, both of which are seen as possible targets of any North Korean aggression. The U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine to the region. Earlier this week, the U.S. military began moving parts of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea. The U.S. and South Korea say THAAD is meant to deter North Korea, which routinely fires missiles that are capable of hitting targets in the South. The system is expected to be operational by the end of this year. Trump, in his Reuters interview, said he wanted the South to pay $1 billion for the system.
What? He wants to squeeze them for cold hard cash, because they’re in a bind? That’s our hardware, operated by our people, for our own reasons. The demand is humiliating, even if Trump changes his mind – but they will respect Trump (and America) damn it! Everyone will. Trump here sounds a lot like that that strange little man with the bad haircut. Be afraid of both of them.
But war is coming:
The president also appeared to walk back his previous criticism that China wasn’t doing enough to contain its clients in North Korea. He said Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he met in Florida earlier this month, “is trying very hard.”
“He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death,” Trump said. “He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well. With that being said, he loves China and he loves the people of China. I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it’s possible that he can’t.”
What are you going to do? No one likes the answer to that question, and there’s this:
Trump also said he hoped Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, was a rational actor, and appeared sympathetic to Kim’s assumption of power in 2012 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age,” Trump said. “I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational.”
Many hope that Trump is rational, and Kimberly Dozier says that’s the word at the White House:
When President Donald Trump predicted Thursday that there could soon be a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, critics were quick to write it off as yet another needlessly provocative and un-presidential outburst from the man occupying the Oval Office.
But aides and close associates of Trump tell a very different story. They say there’s an intentional communications strategy at work, designed by the president himself: Trump knocks opponents off-balance with unexpected tweets or comments that upset the status quo, setting up the shot, then his cabinet secretaries come in as “sweepers,” laying out the new policy in more detail, calming the situation, and landing foreign policy goals.
That’s a nice theory, but there was this:
North Korea’s 33-year-old ruler may not have acted exactly the way the White House wanted, firing off a medium-range missile that broke apart a few minutes after launch as dawn approached on the Korean Peninsula Saturday morning, local time.
The White House response was terse: “The Administration is aware of the most recent North Korean missile test. The President has been briefed.”
Shortly afterward, Trump tweeted as if talking to a recalcitrant child: “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China and its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”
Ah, but there’s a plan there too:
The insult to Kim is intentional – the curt statements a sort of “time out” for a toddler, rather than rewarding a tantrum with parental attention or an overblown U.S. official reaction, a senior administration official explained to The Daily Beast Friday. The tweet is the equivalent of saying, I’ll treat you like the child you are.
It was Trump’s idea for his secretary of State to issue similarly-laconic statements after Kim’s last provocative weapons in early April, much like the brevity of the Friday evening White House statement. Tillerson’s response was only 23 words long, including the maddeningly vague: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
That may have been a bad idea:
“That’s a great strategy when you say I’m going to build a wall. But when you have that kind of Art of the Deal messaging strategy, I’m just afraid it’s a dangerous game to play,” said Republican communications consultant Alice Stewart. “If there’s a method to his madness, I will be relieved, but dealing with a madman, you have to be very careful.”
Trump doesn’t do careful, on purpose:
Trump has studied other presidents known for using unpredictability to keep their opponents off balance, consulting with Henry Kissinger, former aide to President Richard Nixon, about how “Tricky Dick” used that seeming capriciousness to great effect.
He did? Nixon kept the North Vietnamese off balance. They did sign a peace treaty, and then ignored it, and they won the war. Gerald Ford pulled the plug on the whole thing years later. Nixon was long gone, having resigned in disgrace. Unpredictability is overrated:
U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, said that Trump’s version of Nixon “madman” approach was more crazy than crazy-like-a-fox.
“The President’s posturing through tweets does not inspire confidence from our allies,” he said in a statement this week. “Instead of communicating in 140 characters, the President needs a more thoughtful and strategic messaging campaign.”
Trump left that to others:
In Tillerson’s remarks to the UN Friday, he again called on China and others to tighten sanctions, as well as threatening to enact “third party sanctions” against those who support the regime or its weapons programs. That was a not-so-veiled message to China that the U.S. may take unilateral action against Chinese banks or companies that keep doing business with the regime.
Tillerson also made sure to stress the U.S. is not looking to change the regime, nor did he insist on total denuclearization as a prerequisite for possible talks.
“North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks,” he said.
Someone had to be the voice of reason:
“We are not setting preconditions we can’t achieve,” the senior administration official said of the message. “If I make denuclearization the predicate of my policy, I’m going to fail,” the official added of Tillerson’s thinking. Instead, they want to see Kim Jong Un come up with moves of good faith that could restart some form of talks.
The hope is that Pyongyang would eventually follow the example of Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear weapons in 2003 and was welcomed back into the international community – perhaps an unfortunate example given how Gaddafi ended up – dead at the hands of rebels backed by a NATO- and U.S.-backed civil war.
Kim Jong Un may understand that, but Philip Rucker notes that Trump wasn’t finished:
President Trump threatened to terminate the U.S. trade agreement with South Korea in an interview Thursday night, declaring that the five-year-old accord with a key ally was “a horrible deal” that has left America “destroyed.”
During an Oval Office interview about trade policy in North America, Trump served notice that he is looking to disrupt an important partnership in the tumultuous Asia-Pacific region as well – even with Seoul on edge because of North Korea’s escalating military provocations.
Trump sharply criticized the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, known as Korus, which was negotiated and signed during the George W. Bush administration. The latest version was ratified by Congress in 2011 and took effect in March 2012 during the Obama administration.
“It’s a horrible deal. It was a Hillary Clinton disaster, a deal that should’ve never been made,” Trump said, referring to the then-secretary of state who became the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. “It’s a one-way street.”
No one knows why Trump brought that up, other than they will respect Trump (and America) damn it! Everyone will. Trump again sounds a lot like that that strange little man with the bad haircut. Be afraid of both of them, or not:
South Korea’s Trade Ministry said Friday that it has no plans to renegotiate the agreement, the Associated Press reported.
South Korea’s Trade Ministry seems to have assumed that Trump simply wanted to rag on Hillary Clinton again – harmless enough and not their concern – but Anna Fifield reports this:
The South Korean government reeled Friday over President Trump’s sudden insistence that he expects Seoul to pay $1 billion for a missile defense system that many here do not want, the latest in a series of slights against one of the United States’ leading allies in Asia.
Trump’s remarks come at a particularly sensitive time on the Korean Peninsula: Not only have tensions with North Korea risen to their highest level in years, but South Koreans are heading to the polls next month and could elect a president whose ideas about how to deal with North Korea are very different from Trump’s.
That would complicate things, if they weren’t complicated enough already:
“So far the reaction in South Korea to all these things that Mr. Trump has said has been surprisingly restrained, but I think that’s because South Koreans are still trying to figure out what kind of character he is,” said David Straub, a former U.S. diplomat dealing with the Koreas and author of the book Anti-Americanism in Democratizing South Korea.
“They know he’s an unusual president and they’re discounting a lot of what he says, but eventually remarks like these will have a serious effect,” Straub said.
They are figuring out what kind of character he is:
This followed his assertion that Korea was once part of China – which angered many South Koreans – and his phone calls to Beijing and Tokyo over the North Korean problem but not to Seoul.
South Korea is between presidents after the impeachment of Park Geun-hye last month, but many people here took offense that Trump did not call their acting president on an issue involving the Korean Peninsula.
Who’s the madman here? Should we be afraid, generally? Andrew Sullivan says he is much less afraid of Trump than he was a year ago:
His rhetoric, his unfettered far-right agenda, his love of violence, and his loathing of constitutional limits during the campaign were indeed things to be terrified by. They still are. But those of us who were worried that the Constitution might not hold, and that liberal democracy was teetering on the edge of implosion, have so far, mercifully, been proven wrong.
The system works:
The Founders turn out to have constructed a system designed to confront exactly this kind of despotic figure – and it has held up well, even with total GOP control of House and Senate, even in this dangerously liquid, hyper-democratic modern world. The press has done its job of fact-checking, exposing, and opposing those in power (yes, Mr. Bannon, that is one part of its function in a democracy). The courts have resisted strongly. The opposition has seen a dramatic uptick in political and civic engagement. Even Trump’s own congressional party has splintered, impervious to the charisma of their hood ornament. The American public has not been swept up in a nationalist fervor and has tilted against much of Trump’s agenda – on health care and immigration in particular.
Yes, the Trump base remains invested in their antihero. In the poll of polls, he hasn’t dropped below 40 percent for more than a fraction of his time in office. And yes, he still taps into the most powerful currents in the world right now. But his overall popularity is still shockingly low for a newly elected president. And his sad lack of substantive legislative achievements has revealed the talk-radio politics of the far right are incapable of forming a coherent governing agenda.
Sullivan is actually surprised:
I keep thinking of how Obama kept predicting during his eight years of frustration that at some point the “fever would break” on the right. It never did. But history is an ironist. It turns out that the only way the fever could ever have broken is if the GOP actually got complete control of the government and … couldn’t do much of anything. The bluff has been extravagantly called. It’s one thing to rail against the “disaster” of Obamacare; it’s quite another, it turns out, to replace it.
All the right’s political power, we can now see, depended on being in permanent opposition, and never having to actually implement something. Their tax cuts for the very wealthy are tone-deaf, their resuscitation of the Laffer curve surreal. They’ve got nothing on health care but a return to the highly unpopular status quo ante. And they are caught between Trump’s desire to borrow even more to finance his tax cuts and the GOP’s resolute insistence throughout the Obama years that the debt was an existential threat. It’s quite amazing to watch this unfold and unravel in real time.
And that’s a good thing:
My suspicion is that if Clinton had become president, the fever would not have broken at all; it would have intensified. Her incompetence and indecision would have given the GOP even more political oxygen; a Republican House would have stymied her even more effectively than it did Obama; her unfavorables would have gone through the roof; and it could have been an ugly death spiral for the Democrats. (The latest polls showing considerable dissatisfaction with Trump nonetheless show that in a rematch, he would actually do better today against Clinton than he did last November.)
Instead, we have a manifest and brutal exposure of the stark promises Trump made, and of the incoherence and shallowness of so much of the Republican agenda. I still would never have risked putting this menacing clown into the Oval Office. But in the long run, if catastrophe doesn’t strike, it might even be better for the future health of our politics that Clinton is not president. Maybe the American people are not so crazy after all.
Perhaps so, but Philip Bump reports this:
Donald Trump spent a great portion of 2016 insisting that being president would be easy – at least for him. Building a wall on the border with Mexico is easy. Beating Hillary Clinton would be easy. Renegotiating the Iran deal would be easy. Paying down the national debt would be easy. Acting presidential? Easy.
To a reporter from Reuters this week, though, Trump had a slightly different assessment of the presidency.
“I love my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life,” Trump said. “I thought it would be easier. I thought it was more of a … I’m a details-oriented person. I think you’d say that, but I do miss my old life. I like to work so that’s not a problem but this is actually more work.”
It wasn’t the first time that Trump copped to the job being trickier than he anticipated. In November, NBC News reported that Trump had told former House speaker Newt Gingrich that “This is really a bigger job than I thought.” (Gingrich’s response? “…good. He should think that.”) Then there are individual issues. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he said at one point. At another, he revealed that it took a conversation with the president of China to realize that the situation on the Korean peninsula was “not so easy.”
Who knew? Everyone knew:
There’s an element of surprise in Trump’s comments, a hint of bafflement that having responsibility for the welfare of 320 million people entwined in a global economy and international relationships might end up being trickier than running a real estate and branding shop from midtown Manhattan. One group that probably wasn’t surprised that Trump wasn’t prepared? The majority of Americans.
At no point over the course of the 2016 campaign did a majority of Americans think that Trump was qualified for the job of the presidency. Polling from The Post and ABC News shows that the views of Trump as unqualified dominated throughout the campaign. The only group that consistently viewed him as qualified to hold the position were the working-class white voters that constituted the core of his support from early in his candidacy.
More to the point, polling from CBS News showed that, consistently, Trump was viewed as unprepared for the job. In June, July and September – before, during and after Trump began making his general election case – the majority of Americans thought he wasn’t ready to hold the nation’s highest position.
Asked by CNN and its polling partner ORC, most Americans viewed Clinton as more prepared than Trump by a wide margin, including among Democrats and independents. A much greater number of Republicans were willing to call Clinton more qualified than Democrats were Trump.
Put simply: The majority of Americans didn’t think Trump was ready to be president of the United States. Based on his comments about the job being bigger or harder than he thought, that it is more work, it seems safe to say that Trump has also now come to believe that he wasn’t prepared for the office.
Everyone knew, not enough people were afraid, so we get this:
On at least one point, though, he continues to be convincing himself that he’s up to the task. In the middle of his interview with Reuters, Trump paused to pass out copies of a map he had on hand. The map showed the United States, colored with the results of the 2016 election. “It’s pretty good, right?” he asked the Reuters team.
Beating Clinton, as it turned out, was indeed easier than most people had expected.
So you respect me now? Do you? Do you? That strange little man with the bad haircut who runs North Korea says the same thing. There’s only one thing left to do. Plant a tree. No one’s afraid of trees, and it was Arbor Day.