Donald Trump is annoyed.
He is under the impression that as president of the United States everyone must defer to him. Not just his staff, not just his countrymen, but the entire world.
Kim Jong-un has annoyed Trump for a long time. In part because his title “Supreme Leader” sounds more powerful than president and in part because Trump cannot ignore any sleight. For decades, American presidents have ignored the comical rhetoric of the North Koreans just as most would ignore a person sitting next to them on a bus talking to himself.
North Korea is advancing its nuclear weapons program in a way that threatens the United States. Something has to be done, but with all the leverage the United States has over North Korea, with all the incentives it has to offer, the levers of persuasion President Trump has decided to use are the wrong ones. They are the tactics of a school-yard bully not a thoughtful leader.
Back in the 1980’s, Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy called President Reagan a “Yankee imperialist dog and a ‘B’ actor.” I always wondered which part of that insult was most hurtful to Reagan. I’m certain it was the reference to his acting, just as I am certain Reagan was able to laugh away the insult and stay focused on what really mattered, his responsibilities to the nation.
Not Trump. Our current president believes it is his job to match and top any meaningless insult the North Koreans lob our way. This is why seven months into the Trump presidency half the world is on alert for a possible military confrontation that might even involve the use of nuclear weapons.
By matching Kim’s insults, “New York style,” Trump has given him a platform on the world stage he would not normally have. It can even be argued Trump has so undercut the negotiating position of the United States that Kim now has an advantage.
After a week of Trump threats and insults, the Russians, the Chinese, the Germans, and members of both political parties in Congress, are asking the president to tone down his public statements and behave like a rational person. The Russian foreign minister politely lectured Trump by observing, “when you get close to the point of a fight breaking out, the side that is stronger and cleverer should take the first step away from the threshold of danger.” Only Trump could make the North Koreans look like victims.
There are other observations that can be made concerning the events of the last week that are troubling.
President Trump, acting on his own, was the first to raise the stakes in the war of words by using language that clearly brought to mind the imagery of nuclear war. Over the next 24 hours, it was Trump’s secretary of state and defense secretary who helped cover for Trump’s harsh language by suggesting the U.S. was using a carrot and stick approach. Rex Tillerson assured the American people, and the world, that negotiations were underway on the diplomatic front, while Defense Secretary James Mattis warned of the potential consequences if diplomacy fails.
When using the threat of force as a means to affect negotiations it is best if the threat is viewed as credible. Tillerson and Mattis were forced to signal that Trump’s words were only part of a negotiating strategy. The president, who sees himself as a great negotiator, also exposed the emptiness of his threats by sending mixed messages during a series of news conferences. He cannot resist the urge to let everyone know how clever he is by giving the world, including the North Koreans, a behind the curtains look at what he is up to. If the president were running a shell game he would tell his audience which shell hid the pea.
President Trump seems incapable of understanding the stakes of the game he is playing. Even in the unlikely event a war resulted in only North Korean casualties, thousands of people would die and millions more would be left to fend for themselves. This does not seem to matter to our president. His main concern is whether it appears that he came out on top in a back and forth with the North Korean leader Senator John McCain once described as a “crazy fat kid.”
Experts on the subject say that despite current tensions, the North Koreans always back away from the brink, because their ultimate goal is regime survival. The wild card however is President Trump, because it is not clear what he considers victory in this standoff. Is it an end to North Korea’s annoying threats, or nuclear disarmament? Hillary Clinton warned, “a man you can bait with a Tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” It seems Kim was paying attention.
Senator Mitch McConnell annoys President Trump.
Seven months in, the only legislative victory Trump can claim is the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. This happened almost entirely because of the work of Senator McConnell, but Trump has now warned publicly that he may not support McConnell’s continued role as majority leader if McConnell can’t deliver healthcare reform, tax reform and an infrastructure package that Trump can take the credit for and soon.
Trump has offered to do nothing to help, because he feels it his role simply to tell Congress what to do. In one debate last year, Clinton said she had studied and prepared to be president. It appears it has not even occurred to Trump to read the U.S. Constitution in preparation for his new job. His public humiliation of McConnell further indicates he has learned nothing about how Washington works through on the job training.
A growing number of Republicans are disgusted with Trump according to multiple reports. Party discipline requires them to keep quiet about their disapproval in public, but off the record they are willing to tell reporters just what they think. A few are preparing to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020 and his own vice president appears to be keeping all options open despite his over the top denials.
This may force Trump to leave the Republican Party and run for re-election as an independent. We have learned Trump cannot stand humiliation, and he cannot stand losing, so it is fair to think being denied the nomination would lead him to fight on alone relying on whatever is left of his base. Theoretically, he could win with as little as 34% of the vote in a three way race, or even less in a fuller field of credible candidates.
Republicans, led by McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, are no doubt aware of this. Trump has given neither man any reason to stand in the way if the special investigation by Robert Mueller should lead to questions about Trump’s fitness to remain in office. Under normal circumstances, their instinct would be to protect a president of their own party for as long as it is politically feasible to do so, but given Trump’s lack of loyalty they have no incentive to follow that instinct. Republicans have fewer reasons everyday to block a move toward impeachment and it is clear a small field of White House hopefuls plan to prevent Trump’s renomination.
Venezuela annoys President Trump.
As he tries to focus the world’s attention on his handling of North Korea, political turmoil in Venezuela is stealing too much of the spotlight. Seeing an opportunity to show just how unpredictable he can be, the president suggested Friday that the United States has a military option to stabilize the South American nation.
If members of his own national security team were surprised by Trump’s remarks setting off a showdown with North Korea at mid-week, they must have been equally stunned when he opened up a second front in Venezuela. Suddenly the president who is eager to withdraw from Afghanistan, is ambivalent about NATO and believes we should avoid foreign interventions in favor of investing in the United States, seems ready to deploy U.S. forces around the world.
Former President Obama has been heavily criticized by Democrats and Republicans for his response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. After appearing to set a trigger for U.S. intervention, Obama refused to act once chemical weapons were used. In the last week, President Trump has drawn multiple red lines in North Korea, one with the most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill and now with Venezuela. Venezuela!
Several months ago, in this series of columns, I suggested that barring some specific disaster created directly by President Trump that either severely damaged the economy or resulted in the catastrophic loss of life, we had to accept the fact Trump will be president for the next four years. Current events now show both scenarios are possible and as Nancy Pelosi has suggested, Trump may commit political suicide just by being himself.
A police detective once told me the last words of many murder victims are, “You don’t have the guts to pull the trigger.” Dying a blustering fool is the ultimate humiliation. Is there any doubt Donald Trump would take that route? Let’s hope that if he does, he does it alone.