Hurricane Harvey doesn’t count. That may be the first test of our new president – his first crisis – but this wasn’t his fault. These things happen. Even so, Donald Trump was now supposed to be an empathizing, unifying, consoling, competent, and stabilizing presence – but he’s not good at that sort of thing. He hates that sort of thing – he prides himself on being a disrupter of everything – but he went down to Texas and gave it a go. It was awkward and his second trip was no better – he didn’t pass the “test” and that might hurt him – or not. His base will always be with him. Out here in California, Duncan Hunter, one of his first backers in Congress, has been saying this – “He’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” And there were those shirts his supporters wore at the campaign rallies – “Trump 2016: Fuck Your Feelings” – so he may be just fine. And the damned hurricane wasn’t HIS fault – so back off!
Donald Trump will “weather” this crisis. This hurricane had nothing to do with him, but if you taunt and threaten Kim Jong Un enough, and repeatedly mock the Chinese for not having the balls to slap him down, Kim Jong Un will test you. So will the Chinese. You created your own crisis. Kim will test more missiles. Some can reach the United States now. He’ll test more nuclear bombs. He just tested a hydrogen bomb. He says it will easily fit on one of those missiles. It’s a dare. Donald Trump has dared him to do this.
Donald Trump has created his own crisis here that has played out like a bad movie. Keep doing that and you’ll be sorry! It’ll be “fire and fury” like no one has ever seen before! Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it, start a war and write off Seoul and Tokyo and your thirty thousand troops in the region? Are you going to go nuclear and risk that going global? You’ve got to ask yourself one question. “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?
Kim Jong Un really is testing Donald Trump, but this has happened before. There was that Vienna summit on June 4, 1961 – Kennedy, the new president, and Nikita Khrushchev, the old hand at international politics. The two of them discussed Berlin, still divided, and Laos – we were backing a right-winged conservative government (royal) there to counter that communist threat of the popular Pathet Lao – a proxy war – and there was that Bay of Pigs Invasion that had been a fiasco for us. There was a lot to talk about, and nothing came of any of it, but these two guys sized each other up. Kennedy later said of Khrushchev – “He beat the hell out of me” and it was the “worst thing in my life. He savaged me.”
Khrushchev was sympathetic:
Observing Kennedy’s morose expression at the end of the summit, Khrushchev believed Kennedy “looked not only anxious, but deeply upset. I hadn’t meant to upset him. I would have liked very much for us to part in a different mood… But there was nothing I could do to help him. Politics is a merciless business.”
Khrushchev also saw a weak president, and that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year – Kennedy’s first real crisis. We came close to global thermonuclear war, the end of the world, but cooler heads prevailed. The Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba. We removed our Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey. But this had to happen. Privately, Khrushchev had said “I know for certain that Kennedy doesn’t have a strong background, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge.” He also told his son Sergei that Kennedy “would make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then agree” to let the Soviet missiles stay in Cuba.
Khrushchev was wrong, but he did what any adversary would do with a new president. In this case it was a fashionable photogenic young whippersnapper who didn’t know a thing yet. Khrushchev tested him. Kennedy surprised him. And now it’s Donald Trump, an old man who only thinks he’s still a photogenic young whippersnapper, but he knows far less than Kennedy did. Kennedy had been in Congress since 1947 and a senator since 1953 – so he knew a thing or two. America’s new president is really new. Donald Trump has never held any public office before or even ran for public office before. He has no government experience – he doesn’t even seem to know how the government is structured – what the various agencies do and how they do it – and what they can and cannot do. And of course he has no diplomatic experience. Of course Kim Jong Un was going to test him. His family has been in this business a long time. And Donald Trump kind of asked for it.
So that was the news:
North Korea’s detonation of a sixth nuclear bomb on Sunday prompted the Trump administration to warn that even the threat to use such a weapon against the United States and its allies “will be met with a massive military response.”
The test – and President Trump’s response – immediately raised new questions about the president’s North Korea strategy and opened a new rift with a major American ally, South Korea, which Mr. Trump criticized for its “talk of appeasement” with the North.
Suddenly it’s 1962 again:
After a day of meetings in the Situation Room involving Mr. Trump and his advisers, two phone calls between the president and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and even demands from some liberal Democrats to cut off North Korea’s energy supplies, Mr. Trump’s aides conceded that they faced a familiar conundrum.
While the Pentagon has worked up a series of military options for targeted strikes at North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, Mr. Trump was told that there is no assurance that the United States could destroy them all in a lightning strike, according to officials with knowledge of the exchange. Cyberstrikes, which President Barack Obama ordered against the North’s missile program, have also been judged ineffective.
Mr. Trump hinted at one extreme option: In a Twitter post just before he met his generals, he said that “the United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.”
That might be a bad idea:
Taken literally, such a policy would be tantamount to demanding a stoppage of any Chinese oil to North Korea, essentially an attempt to freeze out the country this winter and bring whatever industry it has to a halt.
The Chinese would almost certainly balk; they have never been willing to take steps that might lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime, no matter how dangerous its behavior, for fear that South Korean and American troops would occupy the country and move directly to the Chinese border.
Beyond that, the economic disruption of ending all trade with China would be so huge inside the United States that Mr. Trump’s aides declined on Sunday to discuss the implications.
They seem to have decided that President Trump was only venting – he’s like that – ignore him – but this is a hard test to pass:
After meeting with Mr. Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emerged to warn North Korea that “any threat to the United States or its territory, including Guam or our allies, will be met with a massive military response.” But Mr. Mattis, in a terse statement delivered on the White House driveway with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., also offered a word of reassurance to the North’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-un.
“We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,” he said. “But as I said, we have many options to do so.”
Yes, that was ambiguous:
Mr. Mattis’ statement left open many questions. His formulation seemed to rule out the kind of “preventive war” that the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, warned last month might be necessary after the North tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in an effort to demonstrate that it could reach Los Angeles and beyond. Instead, Mr. Mattis seemed to be talking about “pre-emptive strikes,” which the United States might order if it determined that an attack seemed imminent.
And there was this:
There was no public discussion of pursuing a diplomatic opening to the North. Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson raised such a possibility two weeks ago, after a brief lull in North Korea’s testing. That statement turned out to be optimistic at best. The North has shown no interest in engaging with the United States unless the Americans end their military presence in the South.
To the contrary, the North Korean leader has tried to portray his nuclear program as unstoppable and nonnegotiable, posing by a picture of what the North’s official news agency on Sunday called a hydrogen bomb that could be fitted into the nose cone of the ICBMs tested last month. Experts warned that the weapon, while shaped like a hydrogen bomb, could well have been a mock-up or decoy, one of the many steps the North takes to make it appear more powerful than it truly is.
That doesn’t matter:
The timing of the test on Sunday was almost certainly no coincidence: It came during the American Labor Day weekend, and the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean government is next Saturday.
In the coming days, the government is expected to organize huge rallies to celebrate the bomb test and Mr. Kim’s leadership.
“Pyongyang has a playbook of strategic provocations, throws off its adversaries through graduated escalation, and seeks maximum political impact by conducting weapons tests on major holidays,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Kim is making this a public test, just like those Soviet missiles in Cuba were a public test way back when, and Donald Trump is no Jack Kennedy.
Amy Davidson Sorkin makes that clear:
It’s not clear what time Donald Trump, our restless President, was told of the latest North Korean nuclear test, which took place close to midnight Saturday, Washington time, and was that nation’s largest yet – Kim Jong-un’s first hydrogen bomb, apparently. But it only took until 7:30 a.m. for Trump to make an extremely dangerous and volatile situation worse. He did so, in part, by attacking South Korea, America’s ally and a country at risk in any confrontation – its capital, Seoul, home to ten million people, is close to the border, within range of the North’s artillery – for a supposed lack of toughness. Even at a moment of historic crisis, Trump can’t shake his bully’s instincts: disdain those who you think are weak; home in on and mock the vulnerable; blind yourself to the realities of your own circumstances and character; and pretend that a brawl will make it all better, despite the certainty that it won’t.
Trump did make things worse:
The first tweet was relatively straightforward: “North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States……….”
“Major” is an apt word: tremors of the underground test, including an aftershock suggesting the collapse of whatever cave or chamber it was in, were felt in both South Korea and China, and detected as far away as Argentina. North Korea has falsely bragged about the size of its bombs before, and the stage management of this test – a picture of Kim inspecting a mystery weapon, shown on North Korean television hours before – might have signaled that this, North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, was exaggerated. But the seismic measurements indicate that its power is many times that of North Korea’s previous detonations, and also about a half dozen times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. But, as Trump’s elongated ellipsis suggested, he wasn’t just going to talk about the facts. He had some blame to dole out.
“North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success,” he tweeted next. And then: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”
What is that “one thing”? War, missiles, tweets, Trumpism? “Fire and fury like the world has never seen,” as Trump promised to inflict on North Korea last month if the country acted in a hostile manner?
No one knows, and he’s the one who has made things worse:
It seems to have escaped Trump that matters with North Korea, never good, have deteriorated during his Presidency. What has changed is not the South’s “appeasement” but his heedless will toward escalation. That the people of Seoul, who have built up their city, and, over the years, their democracy, in the face of the specter of war, might have their own definition of fortitude is an idea that he doesn’t seem able to grasp. (As the Times noted, Trump’s anger at South Korea appears to be connected to his anger over his so far unsuccessful attempt to rewrite trade deals with that nation – an issue that, one hopes, will not be entangled with the question of triggering a nuclear war.) Instead, last week, Trump said that he thought that Kim had begun to show “respect” for him. That boast was followed by North Korea’s firing of a ballistic missile on a flight path that took it over the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Trump responded by tweeting, “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”
What, again, is Trump’s answer? China, which quickly condemned the test, could certainly do more, but baiting its officials with talk of their “embarrassment” may not be the best mode of persuasion – unless Trump thinks that he has cowed President Xi Jinping into a state of abject respect for him, too.
This is not the Kennedy administration:
Within an hour of Trump’s rejection of talk last week, Mattis told reporters that “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”
Mattis was also asked, in a separate encounter with reporters last week, why he hadn’t quit working for Trump. “You know, when a President of the United States asks you to do something, I come,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat; we all have an obligation to serve. That’s all there is to it.” Mattis added that he had had arguments with Trump, he said, but “this is not a man who’s immune to being persuaded, if he thinks you’ve got an argument. So anyway, press on.”
Press on, and hope, meanwhile, that President Trump will not press any buttons.
Sure, hope for that, but as Anna Fifield reports, real damage had already been done:
South Korea’s president tried late Sunday to dismiss talk of a dispute between Seoul and Washington over how to deal with North Korea following its sixth nuclear test, after President Trump criticized the South Korean approach as “appeasement.”
Moon Jae-in’s office said that his government would continue to work towards peaceful denuclearization after tweets and actions from Trump that have left South Koreans scratching their heads at why the American president is attacking an ally at such a sensitive time.
This really was an attack:
Trump did not talk to Moon on the phone Sunday – in stark contrast to the two calls he had with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan and a leader who has proven much more willing to agree with his American counterpart. This will worsen anxieties in Seoul that Tokyo is seen as “the favorite ally,” analysts said.
Moon, who was elected in May, advocated engagement with North Korea but has also acknowledged the need for pressure to bring the Pyongyang regime back to talks. He has also come around to an agreement between his predecessor and the U.S. military to deploy an antimissile system in South Korea.
Trump’s tweet was widely reported across South Korean media, and Moon’s office responded to the tweet with a measured statement Sunday night.
“South Korea is a country that experienced a fratricidal war. The destruction of war should not be repeated in this land,” it said. “We will not give up and will continue to push for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through peaceful means working together with our allies.”
Donald Trump has made that impossible:
Trump’s twitter jab came amid news that the U.S. president has instructed advisers to prepare to withdraw from a free-trade agreement with South Korea – a move that is resolutely opposed by South Korea and one that would undermine the two countries’ economic alliance.
No one knows what that’s about:
“It’s strange to see Trump going after South Korea more aggressively than he’s going after China, especially since China also thinks that dialogue is central to solving this problem,” said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul.
In an earlier tweet, Trump had said that China “was trying to help,” although he added it was “with little success.”
Delury said that the “passive aggressive” tone of Trump’s tweets suggested that Moon had been standing up to the American president during their previous phone calls.
“It sounds like Moon is saying, ‘We’re going to have to talk to these guys’ – which is true – and Trump is frustrated,” Delury said, noting that the latest tweet seemed to address Moon directly, with its “like I told you.”
Trump’s tweet was even more puzzling, analysts say, because Trump himself – both as a candidate and as president – had repeatedly suggested he would be willing to talk to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Well, he did:
On the campaign trail, Trump said that he would be happy to have a burger in a boardroom with Kim, and in recent months he has called Kim a “smart cookie” and has said he would be “honored” to meet him.
This, for them, is a new kind of president:
South Korea’s response overall to Trump’s recent pronouncements has been much more muted than its past explosions against its protector – a sign that they know Trump is a different kind of president.
“They think they’re dealing with an unreasonable partner and complaining about it isn’t going to help – in fact, it might make it worse,” said David Straub, a former State Department official who dealt with both Koreas and recently published a book about anti-Americanism in South Korea.
“Opinion polls show South Koreans have one of the lowest rates of regard for Trump in the world and they don’t consider him to be a reasonable person,” Straub said. “In fact, they worry he’s kind of nuts, but they still want the alliance.”
David Andelman says they may not get what they want:
Not every campaign promise is worth keeping. But to please his base, Donald Trump may be about to scrap the main trade pact between the United States and South Korea, the first bilateral treaty he will have terminated as President. Smart? No. Not now, probably not ever.
Isn’t this the very moment when we should be doing all we can to support and strengthen South Korea, a nation that is our principal bulwark against a madman who boasts he now has a hydrogen bomb that can destroy civilization? Apparently not, if it means leaving yet another campaign promise to his base unfulfilled.
Donald Trump made that promise as a candidate, back when North Korea was pretty far down on his list of global priorities, and a whole lot of other pledges seemed like better bets.
The situation may have changed but it’s always about the base, no matter what anyone thinks:
At least three of his leading advisers on these matters oppose scrapping our trade pact. National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, and Gary Cohn, his top economic counselor and former president of Goldman Sachs, are all said to be livid over the prospects of this latest, looming Trump tragedy.
Well, let them be livid:
Remember how much the President loves bilateral trade agreements and hates big multinational pacts that he blames for giving away the store and destroying American jobs? Well, it’s true that South Korea does ship more than $20 billion more goods to the United States than we send its way each year. But that includes a whole lot of Samsung televisions and smartphones, and cheap cars, that, if both countries slapped on major duties, would cost American consumers a whole lot more than they’re paying now. Not to mention the output of American farms, whose exports to South Korea have soared, with beef exports alone more than doubling in the past six years – and then there’s the $23 billion in investments South Korea has made in the United States. How many of these might now be put at risk? How well is all this going to go down in Middle America?
Maybe he is kind of nuts:
The end of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact has left China very much in the driver’s seat across much of Asia, and South Korea clinging to one reed still left to its prosperity – the trade pact with America. Now President Trump seems poised to snatch this from its outstretched hand, effectively ending with one stroke what is left of our amicable relations with South Korea.
If so, why are we going to war anyway? Los Angeles isn’t really at risk. In Vienna, in 1961, Nikita Khrushchev sized up Jack Kennedy – a fashionable photogenic young whippersnapper who didn’t know a thing yet – Kennedy could be had. Khrushchev was wrong. Everyone in the world is sizing up Donald Trump now. He is kind of nuts. And they’re right. And they’re worried.