If it seems like only a week ago that we weren’t contemplating our own mortality amid a bizarre, sustained panic over impending nuclear armageddon, that’s because it was. A week is, of course, a long time in politics so here’s an oral history of how we got here by way of the Trump administration’s somewhat muddled stance on North Korea.
Tuesday August 8
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
North Korea had already reacted angrily to new unanimous UN sanctions on Monday, warning it wouldn’t negotiate about nuclear weapons while it was being threatened. But after reports on Tuesday afternoon that Pyongyang had developed miniaturised nuclear warheads to fit inside the missiles they have been testing recently — suggesting their weapons program is more advanced than was previously thought — the U.S. President escalated tensions further with his dramatic and apparently off the cuff threat.
Wednesday August 9
“What the president was doing was sending a strong message to North Korea in a language that Kim Jong Un would understand. It was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part…I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric over the last few days.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, North Korea did not take kindly to Trump’s threat. In stead Kim Jong-Un’s rogue regime announced that it was studying a plan to fire missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam. In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions, America’s top diplomat Rex Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday morning that there was no “imminent threat” and Americans should sleep well at night. It was unclear whether Tillerson’s appeal for cooler heads to prevail was part of a pre-meditated good cop, bad cop strategy, or whether the Secretary of State was desperately attempting to row back his President’s apocalyptic threats.
A few hours later, Wednesday August 9
My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
…Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
Not hours after his Secretary of State was urging calm, the President took to his favourite medium — Twitter — to boast of America’s military power and again threaten North Korea. While the new statement may have been less alarming than Trump’s words the night before, the contrast between two of the most senior figures in the administration was striking.
Also Wednesday August 9
“The DPRK (North Korea) must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”
Outside observers concerned by Trump’s extreme rhetoric and erratic tendencies have often pointed to the presence of experienced military figures like new White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in order to reassure the public that the president’s worst instincts would not necessarily lead to doom. But Mattis, nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’, issued a statement on Wednesday evening underscoring his boss’ message and warning that North Korea’s actions “will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates”.
Thursday August 10
“You should listen to the president. The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical. It is the job of Secretary Mattis, the secretary of defense, to talk about the military options and he has done so unequivocally.”
Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant for national security, caused no shortage of consternation with his comments to the BBC on Thursday. He quickly followed those remarks, an apparent attempt to settle media criticism that the Trump administration was offering mixed messages over North Korea, with a denial to Fox News. Instead, alleged Gorka the ‘fake news’ media had misinterpreted his criticism of journalists “who are forcing our chief diplomat into a position where they are demanding he makes the military case for action when that is not the mandate of the secretary of state”. So that’s that settled.
Also Thursday August 10
“My portfolio, my mission, my responsibility is to have military options if you need it. However, right now, Secretary Tillerson, Ambassador Haley, you can see the American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results. And I want to stay right there right now. The tragedy of war is well enough known. It does not need another characterization beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic.”
Apparently undeterred by Washington’s resolute stance, North Korea announced on Thursday morning that their plan to launch a volley of ballistic missiles towards Guam ‘will be ready in weeks’. As the international community urged the Trump administration to de-escalate tensions it was Mattis himself who obliged, contradicting his own tone from just a day earlier as well as that of President Trump. Speaking in California, the U.S. Defence Secretary suggested diplomatic options were progressing well and should be followed through in order to avoid a “catastrophic” war.
Post-golf, Thursday August 10
“If anything, maybe that statement (promising fire and fury) wasn’t tough enough. And I will tell you this: North Korea better get their act together, or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world, OK?”
Amid widespread international disquiet and the apparent efforts of some of his most senior advisers to calm tensions, President Trump doubled down on his stark warning to North Korea on Thursday evening. The president was speaking to reporters after attending a briefing on the standoff with Vice President Mike Pence, national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and White House chief of staff John Kelly. Urging Americans that they should be “very comfortable” with how his administration is handling the crisis, Trump also warned North Korea to be “very, very nervous” if they even think about a strike against the U.S. or its allies.
Friday August 11
Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2017
Perhaps waking to news that North Korea had issued a statement blaming Trump for the escalated tensions and boasting it could reduce the U.S. mainland to ashes “at any moment”, Trump took to his favourite medium to respond with his most striking warning yet. The early morning tweet may put to bed any confusion over which American official North Korea should listen to as the nuclear crisis between the two nations continues to escalate.
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