Have we reached a point of no return?

Kathleen Parker, reporting for the Washington Post:

It has become axiomatic that when President Trump says or does something over the top or below the belt, beware the unseen.

His cunning use of distraction turns red herrings green with envy.

The template works like this: Trump says something outrageous that drives Washington’s Bubble Belt wild. The media leaps to outrage while bookers haul in “experts” to intone the obvious in exchange for makeup and a limo.

Next, the same talking heads, commentators and columnists lament the time wasted on such trivia as, say, first lady Melania Trump’s wearing stiletto heels to visit victims of Hurricane Harvey. Critics and the media itself lament that Important Issues are being ignored while attention is turned on, oh, whether Ivanka and Jared are being snubbed by the D.C. in-crowd, such as it is. The point is taken, but one should note that nothing is ever being ignored by everyone. Or, rather, everything of import is being monitored and commented upon by someone.

But then, broadcast and cable producers know — and Trump knows deeply — that most Americans don’t really care that much about what they insist they care about. A few headlines will get most through the morning. Twitter and Facebook keep the curious plied with updates, and by day’s end, who really wants to plunge into tax reform?

It is true, nonetheless, that when Trump needs time to fidget with something that actually matters, he tosses a dead fish into the Dasani tank and waits for the media herdlings to begin their march toward the trough.

Temporarily spared the spotlight, Trump fluffs the thatched nest atop his head and invites his brain to hatch some very bad ideas. Thus, we seem to be on the brink of a nuclear confrontation with North Korea. Remember when we used to worry about Trump having his finger on the nuclear launch button? Square that. When the other antagonist is North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the nightmare can’t be dismissed as the twisted hankie of the persistently worried.

Never have two less qualified “leaders” been so endowed with such devastating power without the requisite impulse control upon which living civilizations depend. Not to mention that these two nuke hecklers are unmercifully coifed to resemble cartoon characters so that we, the soberly sane, are left to ponder our face-melting demise as a clown showdown between two renegade circus performers. The horror movie “It,” featuring a diabolical clown and opening this week, couldn’t pay for better timing.

Meanwhile, one seeks cooler comfort in the memory of the Cuban missile crisis between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy. At least these men were capable of finding an alternative to worst-case scenarios. There seems to be no such inclination on North Korea’s part or, frankly, on Trump’s. Unless our reality star-in-chief holds his sagacity in reserve for special occasions such as this, there’s little reason to assume or hope he’ll diplomatically temper his counterpart’s apparent need to demonstrate his manhood.

In July, Trump was typically eloquent in describing his approach to thwarting disaster:

“We’ll handle North Korea. We’ll be able to handle North Korea. It will be handled. We handle everything.”

Whew, that.

As further insult to reason, this isn’t even a conflict over something at least historically rational, such as the now nearly charming contest between communism and Americanism. No battle of wits, the U.S.-North Korea stare-down is more accurately a battle of nitwits who seem to think threatening nuclear holocaust and mutual destruction is a contest to see who has bigger hands.

No one would suggest that Trump is responsible for all the nail biting these past few months or that Kim’s missile and nuclear tests aren’t deadly serious. But Trump surely has exacerbated matters with his “fire and fury” rhetoric. The goading language of ultimatum, more than a bluffing tactic, is an inflammatory agent such that the possible moves inexorably toward the inevitable. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the president’s toughest-talking Cabinet member, recently said: “We have kicked the can down the road long enough. There is no more road left.”

Perhaps Kim might argue the same. Meanwhile, a can-kicking strategy (i.e., containment and diplomacy) seems a not-irrational substitute for mutual annihilation. Have we reached a point of no return? Will the president of the United States fire Kim, or will he invent some new distraction (staffers: Watch your backs) while he becomes a stealth, wartime leader?

Stay tuned. But first: What will Melania wear to the presidential bunker?

Calls for diplomacy vie with fresh threats in North Korea crisis

Via The Washington Post:

Calls for more intense diplomacy on North Korea vied Friday with threats of force, with little sense of what strategy would prevail in Washington or Pyongyang or which leader would blink first.

As the vacationing president tossed off remarks that in other times would have indicated imminent conflict, U.S. friends and foes could only watch, wait and hold their breath.

“Nobody loves a peaceful solution more than President Trump,” Trump told reporters late in the day, after a meeting at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

But, Trump said, “we could also have a bad solution.” Asked by a reporter whether he was “thinking of war” with North Korea, Trump said enigmatically, “I think you know the answer to that.”

As questions strayed into other areas of foreign and domestic policy, Trump said without elaboration that he was “not going to rule out a military option” to deal with political strife in Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro, whom he has called a “dictator.”

But most of Trump’s comments returned again to North Korea. He said that the United States was preparing “very, very strong” additional sanctions against Pyongyang, following last Saturday’s unanimous U.N. Security Council passage of a harsh sanctions package.

Asked whether he and the president were on the same page, Tillerson, who has emphasized a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis, said, “Totally.”

“It takes a combined message if we’re going to get effective movement out of the regime in North Korea. . . . I think the president has made it clear he prefers a diplomatic solution,” said the secretary, who stood at Trump’s side.

The president said he planned to speak by telephone Friday night with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China has indicated that it would stay neutral if North Korea struck first and the United States retaliated but would intervene on behalf of Pyongyang after a U.S. first strike.

In other world reactions Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “verbal escalation” was the “wrong response” to Pyongyang’s heated rhetoric, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country was equally worried about U.S. talk of a preemptive strike and North Korea’s warning of an attack near Guam.

Trump began the day on Twitter with a fresh threat, saying the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” and ready to take action against North Korea if it continues to “act unwisely.” To drive home the point, he retweeted images from the U.S. Pacific Command showing Air Force B-1B bombers.

In Pyongyang, a commentary in the state-run newspaper said that “U.S. military warmongers are running amok” and warned that “the U.S. and its vassal forces will pay dearly” for new economic sanctions and for “reckless military provocation.”

The State Department said Tillerson traveled to New Jersey to brief Trump on his just-completed trip to East Asia. In regional summits and bilateral meetings, Tillerson pushed for full implementation of the new sanctions against North Korea that Haley successfully shepherded through the Security Council.

Neither Tillerson nor Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have spoken directly about Trump’s threats. Mattis has said the military is prepared for any eventuality but has warned of the catastrophic nature of war. Both Mattis and Tillerson have issued statements this week indicating that diplomacy and economic pressure remain the centerpieces of U.S. policy toward North Korea.

Trump said that for part of the day Monday he would return to Washington, where he said he has scheduled a “very important meeting” and would have “a pretty big press conference.”

On Thursday and again Friday, Trump seemed to relish the opportunity to rattle U.S. sabers in brief exchanges with reporters interspersed among meetings on national security and other subjects. Those who say he is increasing tensions “are only saying that because it’s me,” he said after a midday session on workforce issues. “If somebody else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they’d say, ‘What a great statement, what a wonderful statement.’ . . . We have tens of millions of people in this country that are saying . . . ‘Finally, we have a president that’s sticking up for our nation.’ ”

What he meant by “locked and loaded” was “pretty obvious,” Trump said. “Those words are very, very easy to understand.” If Kim “utters one threat in the form of an overt threat . . . if he does anything with respect to Guam or any place else . . . he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast.”

Asked about Merkel’s remarks, Trump said: “Perhaps she was speaking for Germany. She is certainly not referring to the United States.” He called Merkel “a very good person” who was a friend of his and of his daughter Ivanka.

More here.

The whole Senate is being briefed on North Korea on Wednesday

Via Vox:

The entire US Senate will head to the White House to attend a briefing on North Korea from four top Trump administration officials Wednesday, press secretary Sean Spicer announced Monday.

But though it’s unusual for all 100 senators to head to the White House grounds at once, Spicer also stressed that the briefing was not initiated by the White House but by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office — a clarification perhaps made to tamp down any speculation that the administration is considering imminent military action in North Korea.

“This is a Senate briefing convened by the majority leader, not a White House briefing. We are just serving as the location. For further questions, I would direct you to the majority leader’s office,” Spicer said.

Tensions with North Korea have risen in recent days preceding and following the country’s failed missile test. One anonymously sourced report from NBC News claimed that the US was considering a preemptive strike against the nation — an action that could initiate a major war in Asia.

But other officials strongly pushed back against the NBC report, telling Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin that it was “wildly wrong” and “extremely dangerous.” And of course, no such strike materialized before the attempted missile test last week.

Indeed, despite the tough-sounding rhetoric from the Trump administration, it’s not clear whether their policy is actually changing all that much. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all began their terms by saying their predecessors’ North Korea policies failed and that a new approach of some kind was necessary.

However, all of them calculated that actual military action was far too risky, because it could well result in massive destruction and loss of life in both North and South Korea. “One war game convened by the Atlantic back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone,” Alex Ward writes.

It’s also worth noting that in contrast to, say, the hours preceding Trump’s Syria strike, there does not appear to be buzz on Capitol Hill that any sort of attack on North Korea is imminent.

So another possible reason for the briefing is that administration officials — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford — will discuss further toughening of economic pressure on North Korea.

And the Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe suggest yet another theory, writing that lawmakers and aides are questioning whether the unusual setting means the Trump administration “intends to use the event as a photo op ahead of its 100-day mark,” since these large group briefings with classified information typically take place on Capitol Hill.

The ‘Oh, never mind’ president

George Will, writing in the Washington Post:

In his first annual message to Congress, John Quincy Adams, among the most experienced and intellectually formidable presidents, warned leaders against giving the impression that “we are palsied by the will of our constituents.” In this regard, if in no other, the 45th president resembles the sixth.

Donald Trump’s “Oh, never mind” presidency was produced by voters stung by the contempt they detected directed toward them by the upper crust. Their insurrection has been rewarded by Trump’s swift shedding of campaign commitments, a repudiation so comprehensive and cavalier that he disdains disguising his disdain for his gulled supporters.

The notion that NATO is obsolete? That China is a currency manipulator? That he would eschew humanitarian interventions featuring high explosives? That the Export-Import Bank is mischievous? That Obamacare would be gone “on Day One”? That 11.5 million illegal immigrants would be gone in two years (almost 480,000 a month)? That the national debt would be gone in eight years (reducing about $2.4 trillion a year)? About these and other vows from the man whose supporters said “he tells it like it is,” he now tells them: Never mind.

The president, whose almost Sicilian sense of clan imparts new meaning to the familiar phrase “family values,” embraces daughter Ivanka’s belief that America suffers from an insufficiency of entitlements, a defect she (and he, judging from his address to a joint session of Congress) would rectify with paid family leave. Her brother Eric has said (to Britain’s Telegraph) that he is “sure” that 59 cruise missiles flew because Ivanka said to her father about Syria using chemical weapons, “Listen, this is horrible stuff.”

Although a senior Trump adviser, Stephen Miller, has stipulated that presidential powers to protect the nation “will not be questioned,” still they persist, those impertinent questioners. They do because when candidate Trump’s open-mic-night-at-the-improv rhetoric of quarter-baked promises and vows is carried over into the presidency and foreign policy, there are consequences, especially when his imprecision infects his subordinates.

One cannot erase with an “Oh, never mind” shrug Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that the “message” foreign leaders should take from the Syrian attack is “if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.” It is not true that the United States will respond, other than rhetorically, to all crossings of those four red lines. If, as Tillerson says, the United States is committed to “holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” the United States is going to need a much bigger military than even the president’s proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending would purchase.

Much more here.

Paging the Trump Armada

Gail Collins, writing in the New York Times:

Let’s consider the case of the wrong-way warships.

Last week, North Korea was planning a big celebration in honor of its founder’s birthday. For North Koreans, holiday fun is short on barbecues and high on weaponry. The big parade in Pyongyang featured monster canisters that theoretically contained intercontinental ballistic missiles. It’s possible they were actually empty and that right now, North Korea only has bragging rights in the big-container race.

But its intentions were definitely bad, and the United States was worried there might be a missile launch or an underground nuclear test.

What should Donald Trump do? “We’re sending an armada,” said the president. Possible confrontation? As a concerned citizen, you had to be very worried. North Korea is, in every way, a special and dangerous case. It has a leader who is narcissistic to the point of psychosis, with a celebrity fixation and a very strange haircut.

O.K., maybe not entirely unique.

Trump was talking about bringing in four warships, one of them an aircraft carrier. Was this going to mean real shooting? His critics back home had to decide whether to protest, wave the flag in support or simply stock the fallout shelter. (This would be the fallout shelter you repurposed a couple decades ago as a wine cellar, but lately you’ve been thinking it can work both ways.)

Everybody was talking about the dangers. If North Korea sent up a missile, would the U.S. retaliate? Then what would happen to South Korea and Japan? People debated all the variables. The only thing that did not come up was the possibility that the American flotilla was actually no place near the neighborhood.

Yet, as Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt reported in The Times, at the moment the president was announcing his armada, the warships in question were actually going in the opposite direction, en route to a destination 3,500 miles away, where they were to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy.

Whoops. The official response was that the administration was sending an armada eventually.

“We said that it was heading there. And it was heading there, it is heading there,” said press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday. Under this theory, the president could have responded to North Korea’s latest saber-rattling by announcing that he was going to China, since chances are he’ll get there someday. Sooner or later. Especially if the Chinese can come up with a gold coach like the queen of England’s.

Poor Sean Spicer. Every day a new official fantasy to defend. Tonight the president will go to bed and dream that he’s actually the true heir to the principality of Liechtenstein. Tomorrow Spicer will come into the pressroom on skis and announce we’re declaring war on Switzerland.

* * *

We’re really not asking for a lot, but can’t the president at least be clear about the direction our ships are headed? Concerned citizenry has already adapted to the idea that half the things Trump said during the campaign have now been retracted. NATO is great, the Chinese don’t manipulate their currency. And the Export-Import bank is, well .…

Pop Quiz: Which best describes your feelings about the president’s attitude toward the Export-Import Bank?

A) Happy when he denounced it during the campaign.

B) Glad when he said it was a good thing after all.

C) Worried when he nominated an Export-Import Bank head who seems to hate it.

D) I don’t care about the Export-Import Bank! What about all those bombs?

O.K., O.K. In the end, the North Koreans did test a missile but it exploded right after launch. It is possible this was due to a long-running American cybersabotage program. If so, Trump couldn’t have mentioned it as a matter of security. Otherwise he’d certainly have been out there expressing his gratitude to the Obama administration for having done so much work on it. Hehehehe.

When it comes to Trump and foreign affairs, the big problem is that you want to be fair, but you don’t want to encourage him. A lot of Americans liked the idea of responding to a chemical attack in Syria by bombing a Syrian air base. But if the president thought it was popular, wouldn’t he get carried away? It’s like praising a 4-year-old for coloring a picture, and the next thing you know he’s got his crayons out, heading for the white sofa.

More here.

Tillerson says ‘all options are on the table’ when it comes to North Korea

Anna Fifield, reporting for The Washington Post:

The Trump administration gave its clearest signal yet that it would consider taking military action against North Korea, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Friday that “all options are on the table” to deter the threat from Pyongyang.

Tensions are running high in northeast Asia, with North Korea making observable progress toward its goal of building a missile that could reach the United States mainland and China incensed over South Korea’s decision to deploy an American antimissile battery.

Tillerson’s remarks, ruling out diplomatic talks and leaving the door open to military action, will fuel fears in the region that the Trump administration is seriously considering what are euphemistically called “kinetic” options in Washington.

“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said at a news conference in Seoul with Yun Byung-se, the South Korean foreign minister. He was referring to the Obama administration policy of trying to wait North Korea out, hoping that sanctions would prove so crippling that Pyongyang would have no choice but to return to de-nuclearization negotiations.

“We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson said, adding that while the U.S. did not want military conflict, threats “would be met with an appropriate response.”

“If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table,” he said.

In a surprise turn of events, Yun appeared to suggest that South Korea would support military options.

“We have various policy methods available,” said Yun, who is unlikely to remain in his position for much longer as elections for a new government will be held in early May. “If imposing diplomatic pressure is a building, military deterrence would be one of the pillars of this building. We plan to have all relevant nations work together more closely than in the past and make sure that North Korea, feeling pain for its wrongdoings, changes its strategy,” he said.

More here.

From Trump’s Mar-a-Lago to Facebook, a National Security Crisis in the Open

Via The New York Times:

President Trump and his top aides coordinated their response to North Korea’s missile test on Saturday night in full view of diners at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida — a remarkable public display of presidential activity that is almost always conducted in highly secure settings.

The scene — of aides huddled over their computers and the president on his cellphone at his club’s terrace — was captured by a club member dining not far away and published in pictures on his Facebook account. The images also show Mr. Trump conferring with his guest at the resort, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister.

Shortly before the club member, Richard DeAgazio, who joined Mr. Trump’s club recently, took the pictures, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off its eastern coast. Mr. DeAgazio posted his photographs to Facebook as the two leaders and their staff members reviewed documents and worked on their laptops, using cellphones as flashlights.

“HOLY MOLY !!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan,” Mr. DeAgazio wrote later on Facebook, describing how the two leaders “conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference.”

“Wow…..the center of the action!!!” Mr. DeAgazio wrote in the post. The scene at Mar-a-Lago was first reported by CNN. Mr. DeAgazio did not respond to a call seeking comment.

President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Saturday. He and his aides coordinated a national security response there in full view of diners instead of moving to a private location.

The fact that the national security incident played out in public view drew swift condemnation from Democrats, who said it was irresponsible for Mr. Trump not to have moved his discussion to a more private location.

“There’s no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater,” Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader in the House, wrote onTwitter.

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tom Udall of New Mexico, Democrats who have called for Mr. Trump’s club to release a list of its members, denounced the president on Monday for discussing the North Korean missile launch in the open.

“This is America’s foreign policy, not this week’s episode of ‘Saturday Night Live,’” the senators said in a statement. “We urge our Republican colleagues to start taking this administration’s rash and unprofessional conduct seriously before there are consequences we all regret.”

Republican senators also seemed puzzled by the president’s actions. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said, “Usually that’s not a place where you do that kind of thing.” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, could barely find words. “Can’t make it up,” he said.

Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director under President Barack Obama, said, “Every president with whom I have worked would have gone to a private room to have what was potentially a classified discussion.”

Mr. Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. — known casually as the Winter White House — for a get-to-know-you weekend with Mr. Abe, including time with the prime minister on the golf course and dinners with their spouses.

Around 8 p.m. on Saturday, the two leaders appeared for a brief photo-op together at the main entrance to the resort. Mr. Trump ignored a shouted question from a reporter about the North Korean missile test, which had occurred about an hour earlier.

The president and his guests dined at the resort’s restaurant during the next two hours, eventually providing the flurry of national security activity that Mr. DeAgazio captured.

Around 10:30 p.m., Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe made short statements to a small group of reporters brought to a separate room in the resort.

Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, told reporters at the White House that Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe had not reviewed classified material on the resort’s patio.

Mr. Spicer said the president was briefed about North Korea in a secure location on the property. It is against the law for officials to be handling classified materials in a nonsecure setting.

Mr. Spicer said Mr. Trump and his aides were reviewing “news conference logistics” about the North Korean missile test.

But national security veterans of past administrations still expressed surprise that Mr. Trump and his staff would not have excused themselves to be able to have candid conversations about the North Korean situation and to review sensitive or classified documents.

Discussions about how to respond to international incidents involving adversaries like North Korea are almost always conducted in places that have high-tech protections against eavesdropping, like the White House Situation Room.

When presidents are away from the White House, they often conduct important business in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, a location that can be made temporarily impervious to eavesdropping.

Much more here.