It was a day for geopolitical theology:
Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, one of President Trump’s evangelical advisers who preached the morning of his inauguration, has released a statement saying the president has the moral authority to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary – including war – to stop evil,” Jeffress said. “In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”
Jeffress said in a phone interview that he was prompted to make the statement after Trump said that if North Korea’s threats to the United States continue, Pyongyang will be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
So bring on the fire and brimstone:
The biblical passage Romans 13 gives the government authority to deal with evildoers, Jeffress said. “That gives the government to the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un,” he said.
He said that many pacifist Christians will cite Romans 12, which says, “Do not repay evil for evil,” but Jeffress says that that passage is referring to Christians, not to the government.
“A Christian writer asked me, ‘Don’t you want the president to embody the Sermon on the Mount?'” he said, referring to Jesus’s famous sermon. “I said absolutely not.”
So screw the Sermon on the Mount. Assassination or any kind of so-called “evil” punishment would not be “evil” in this case at all, which seems a bit of theological slight-of-hand, but this guy is who he is:
Jeffress is no stranger to controversy. He has said in the past that former president Barack Obama paved the way for the antichrist and drew wide attention for calling Mormonism a cult during the 2012 Republican primaries. Jeffress knows his comments on North Korea could be considered controversial, even among fellow evangelicals.
“Some Christians, perhaps younger Christians, have to think this through,” he said. “It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.”
Over the past two years, Jeffress said, Trump has been “very measured, very thoughtful in every response.”
That’s not the consensus opinion, and that’s starting the story in the middle, because the story is this:
President Trump used his harshest language yet to warn North Korea on Tuesday that it will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” if it does not stop threatening the United States.
“North Korea best not make any more threats,” Trump told reporters at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club, where he is vacationing. Saying that the threats had gone “beyond a normal state,” he twice repeated the “fire and fury” warning.
That came out of nowhere:
It was not immediately clear what Trump was responding to. A North Korean military spokesman said Tuesday that Pyongyang was considering a plan to fire missiles at Guam and that it would carry out a preemptive strike if there were any signs of U.S. provocation, Reuters reported, quoting state media.
Earlier in the day, North Korea said it would “ruthlessly take strategic measures involving physical actions,” in the wake of new economic sanctions approved Saturday by the U.N. Security Council. On Monday, Pyongyang threatened retaliation against the United States “thousands of times.”
Nothing had changed. It was the usual North Korean bullshit, but for his:
Trump’s statement also followed a report in The Washington Post that North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its ballistic missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. The report quoted a confidential assessment by U.S. intelligence officials.
That was the big deal, but Trump seems to have crossed a line:
Trump’s comments drew criticism from senior lawmakers. “The great leaders I’ve seen don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act, and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told a Phoenix radio station.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said the remarks were “not helpful and once again show that he lacks the temperament and judgment” to deal with a serious crisis. “We should not be engaging in the same kind of blustery and provocative statements as North Korea about nuclear war.”
Perhaps so, but we had been being a bit unclear:
The administration has made clear that it is no longer adhering to the policy of previous administrations requiring North Korea to commit to giving up its nuclear weapons before talks can begin. While denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the ultimate goal, it is no longer a U.S. prerequisite for talks.
Repeating comments he made in the spring, Tillerson last week said the United States is not seeking regime change in North Korea.
If Tillerson’s remarks were the carrot Trump’s remarks are clearly the stick.
The White House has said it is “keeping all options on the table” regarding North Korea, including the use of military force.
Now everyone’s confused:
Victor Cha, director of Asian studies at Georgetown University and former president George W. Bush’s top adviser on North Korea, said he took Trump’s harsh statement “not to be a sign that the United States is going to attack, but [to warn that] if North Korea actually did anything behind all their bluster, they would be met with immediate and overwhelming response. That is actually good for deterrence.”
But at the same time, Cha said, it was unclear whether Trump’s outburst was coordinated with Tillerson’s outreach.
And there was this odd context too:
Trump’s late-afternoon statement Tuesday came after he took to Twitter in the morning to amplify a Fox News report, based on anonymous sources, that U.S. spy satellites had detected North Korea loading two cruise missiles on a patrol boat on the country’s coast in recent days.
Without adding any comment of his own, Trump, who regularly decries leaks to the media, retweeted to his more than 35 million followers a link to the day-old story, which was featured Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends,” a program on Fox News.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a question about whether Trump’s retweet amounted to a confirmation of the story, which was attributed to unnamed “U.S. officials with knowledge of the latest intelligence in the region.”
One intelligence official who was asked about the report said it was insignificant and not a sign that North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile or make any other provocation. But the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, expressed chagrin that Trump would retweet a report about “something unimportant” that nonetheless “reveals something about our surveillance capabilities.”
Donald Trump is a bit impulsive, and Adam Taylor adds this:
Given the high stakes, it was unusually aggressive language from a U.S. president. Stranger still, this language has clear echoes to threats made by North Korea to the United States and its allies.
In recent years, Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has repeatedly threatened to turn the South Korean capital, Seoul, into a “sea of fire” if attacked. North Korea has even produced propaganda videos imagining what such an attack might look like. Last year, the website DPRK Today released video of a simulated attack on Seoul. The video ended with the warning: “Everything will turn into ashes.”
Washington is often the target of similar threats from North Korea. On Sunday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, warned that sanctions or other actions against Pyongyang would result in the United States being “catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”
Perhaps Donald Trump was (North) Korean all along, but he has backed himself into a corner:
The sheer frequency of these threats and insults has long made them easy to dismiss. Trump himself has spoken with relative kindness about Kim, calling him a “pretty smart cookie” in an interview in April. Now that developments have made clear that North Korea’s weapons program is developing and may soon, if not already, pose a threat to the United States, Trump appears to have changed his rhetoric.
But in doing so, he may have set himself an impossible red line: The president warned of “fire and fury” not if North Korea carried out another missile test but if it made another threat. And North Korea often makes threats.
That is a worry – nuclear war is always a worry – but this may have been accidental. That’s what Daniel Dale suggests here:
In 2012, when Donald Trump was a celebrity businessman, he wrote on Twitter: “Price of corn has jumped over 50%. This will cause a jump in food prices perhaps beyond what we’ve ever seen.”
Four years later, when he was running for president, he told the New York Times that China was building, in the South China Sea, “a military fortress the likes of which perhaps the world has not seen.”
The expression popped out of his mouth again after he won the election. In December, Trump told supporters that they had created “a grassroots movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
And there it was again when Trump was ad-libbing about the opioid addiction crisis on Tuesday afternoon. He claimed that he was “very, very strong on our southern border – and I would say the likes of which this country certainly has never seen.”
Until that point, the president’s pet phrase was unremarkable. It was mere hyperbole – mere Trump. This was a man who never used “big” when “huge” could do. This was just how the man spoke.
And then, minutes after his remarks on opioids, the phrase suddenly became a threat of nuclear war.
It was just carelessness:
It is possible that Trump intended to make just such a nuclear threat. He has, after all, promised to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear threat “one way or the other.”
But it is also possible that the president bumbled into the threat because he did not understand the ramifications of a favorite phrase he had in his head.
“I’m guessing that this talking point didn’t come through the rigorous interagency process,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, communications director in the Obama administration.
But carelessness could get us all killed:
Kim Jong Un is now confronted with the dilemma that has vexed American voters and lawmakers alike: whether or not to take Trump literally.
“I don’t pay much attention anymore to what the president says because there’s no point in it,” Sen. John McCain told an Arizona radio station while criticizing Trump’s comments. “It’s not terrible what he said, but it’s kind of the classic Trump in that he overstates things.”
Others might not understand that:
Experts believe Kim is rational, not mad, and that he wants to avoid nuclear war. But they have long feared that Kim might be provoked by loose Trump language into miscalculating, launching a strike because he thought Trump meant precisely what he said.
That was the talk on cable news:
A confrontation between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could go south very quickly, a nuclear arms expert warned on CNN Tuesday.
While discussing revelations that the North Korean government has developed miniature nuclear warheads capable of fitting inside missiles, nuclear arms expert Tom Collina said that both Trump and Kim have volatile personalities that could make for a frightening confrontation should tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to rise.
“The most dangerous thing about the situation right now is you have two inexperienced, bombastic leaders that are now pointing nuclear weapons at each other,” said Collina, who is the policy director of the Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear nonproliferation advocacy organization. “It’s a dangerous situation. It’s a very unstable situation that could quickly stumble into catastrophe.”
He then went on to explain how global crises such as these can quickly spiral out of control if either side misinterprets their rivals’ intentions.
“You know, mistakes, misidentification of cues, again, neither one of these leaders have much experience doing this, so the first thing we need to do is try to sit down, get these two leaders to sit down and start talking,” he said. “How are we going to defuse this situation? How are we going to bring some stability to this very unstable situation so that we don’t stumble into war? That’s the primary thing we have to do right now.”
Neither one of these leaders have much experience doing this. That’s not comforting, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis adds this perspective:
Mr. Trump’s menacing remarks echoed the tone and cadence of President Harry S. Truman, who, in a 1945 address announcing that the United States had dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, urged the Japanese to surrender, warning that if they did not, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”
It is not clear whether Mr. Trump intended the historical parallel – White House officials did not respond to questions about how much planning went into his brief statement, or what was intended by the alliterative language – but it was a stark break with decades of more measured presidential responses to brewing foreign conflicts.
This was different:
“It’s hard to think of a president using more extreme language during crisis like this before,” said Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian. “Presidents usually try to use language that is even more moderate than what they may be feeling in private, because they’ve always been worried that their language might escalate a crisis.”
Mr. Truman delivered his muscular message at a time when the United States had an overwhelming military advantage over Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapon; Mr. Trump’s threat was aimed instead at a government that has developed nuclear weapons and has been testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
It didn’t used to be this way:
President Dwight D. Eisenhower used to say that the more shrill the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in the language he used against the United States – promising “we will bury you” and “we’re turning out missiles like sausages” – the more tempered he would be, Mr. Beschloss said.
Eisenhower is dead, and Josh Marshall is worried:
This is a really bad and dangerous situation to start with. It was bad when President Obama left office. It’s gotten much worse since – through some mix of US threats and North Korean testing out the new administration. The worst possible thing is a President who is stupid, impulsively emotional and has something to prove, which is exactly what we have. (You think his litany of failures as President so doesn’t make him eager for a breakout, transformative moment?) At the risk of stating the obvious, threats like this from a country that has the ability to kill everyone in North Korea at close to a moment’s notice can set off a highly unpredictable chain of events. What if North Korea issues more threats? Presumably Trump fails to respond with a nuclear attack and reveals his threats as empty or – truly, truly unimaginably – he launches a nuclear attack. These are not good choices to face.
The situation with North Korea would be an extreme challenge for a leader with ability and judgment. President Trump is simply too erratic, unstable and dangerous to be in charge in a situation like this.
Many believe that now, but Kevin Drum isn’t worried:
Trump blusters this way routinely, and anyway, he’ll probably consider anything he does to be so heroic that it’s unlike anything the world has seen. Just yesterday, referring to a fairly routine bit of resume fudging that was exposed a decade ago, he tweeted, “Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal.” Uh huh. Plus Trump is surrounded by advisors who can probably keep him in line.
The bigger worry is that all the pressure over North Korea might prompt Trump to do something stupid. This in turn might provoke North Korea into launching an attack first. If they decide that Trump is serious, it might seem the best option.
I don’t think that will happen either. Kim Jong-un isn’t crazy – he just likes to act that way. He’s probably completely rational, in the same murderous kind of way that Josef Stalin was. He might bluster like Trump, but he knows perfectly well that any war involving the United States would end with the obliteration of his country.
Still, there’s this:
All that said, this represents one of the reasons that Trump is so much worse than garden variety Republicans. With, say, Ted Cruz in office, I think there’s a zero percent chance of nuclear war. With Trump in office there’s a one percent chance. That’s not much, but it’s one percent more than I’d like.
We are dealing with an odd man, not a garden-variety Republican, and even the minor stuff is worrying. At Vice, Alex Thompson reports this:
Twice a day since the beginning of the Trump administration, a special folder is prepared for the president. The first document is prepared around 9:30 a.m. and the follow-up, around 4:30 p.m. Former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and former Press Secretary Sean Spicer both wanted the privilege of delivering the 20-to-25-page packet to President Trump personally, White House sources say.
These sensitive papers, described to VICE News by three current and former White House officials, don’t contain top-secret intelligence or updates on legislative initiatives. Instead, the folders are filled with screenshots of positive cable news chyrons (those lower-third headlines and crawls), admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful.
One White House official said the only feedback the White House communications shop, which prepares the folder, has ever gotten in all these months is: “It needs to be more fucking positive.” That’s why some in the White House ruefully refer to the packet as “the propaganda document.”
But think of this as a public service:
On days when there aren’t enough positive chyrons, communications staffers will ask the RNC staffers for flattering photos of the president.
“Maybe it’s good for the country that the president is in a good mood in the morning,” one former RNC official said.
That’s one way to avoid global thermonuclear war, but Garrison Keillor suggests another way. Enlist the guy’s wife:
Everyone needs a truth-teller in his or her life and truth-tellers are becoming rare. It’s the Age of Sensitivity when we’re made to feel that we should be validating each other and not telling someone that his fly is open…
Melania – do you mind if I call you Melania? I assume that you love this guy. I don’t, even though Scripture tells me to. A bully and a braggart who is also a liar and somewhat clueless might be lovable if he were a cabdriver, but not a president. But you do, so fine. You owe it to him to tell him, “Darling, you’re making an ass of yourself. For the sake of your family… stop.”
Would you let the man run around in a headdress of flamingo feathers singing the song about each and every highway and byway and not in a shy way with his trousers around his ankles? No, you wouldn’t. But that’s what’s happening now.
You married a New York Democrat and now you’re married to Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick. Make him stop. If you can’t tell him face to face, try Twitter. A short punchy message will get his attention. Something like, “You are dumb enough to be twins. Shut up and be beautiful.”
That might work, except that Donald Trump seems to see women as no more than ornamental, and sometimes useful to him for this reason or that. He won’t listen to her. He has Pastor Robert Jeffress. Assassination or any kind of so-called “evil” punishment – a few nukes lobbed at North Korea – would not be “evil” at all. And he gets those thick folders of unalloyed praise twice a day. He is theologically secure. The rest of us may have to become atheists – to survive.