Trump team de-es­ca­lates the boss’s nu­clear talk on N. Korea

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - ALEXAN­DER PANETTA

WASH­ING­TON — He promised un­pre­dictabil­ity and he’s de­liv­er­ing. On an is­sue with the high­est stakes imag­in­able, the life-and-death mat­ter of a nu­clear show­down, Don­ald Trump’s team de­liv­ered mixed mes­sages Wed­nes­day, with some seek­ing to de-es­ca­late the boss’s lan­guage.

Team Trump danced around ques­tions such as: Was Trump se­ri­ous when he vowed to un­leash fire, fury, and power with un­prece­dented force in world his­tory, as re­tal­i­a­tion for North Korean threats? Was this a firm red line? Was this state­ment pre­pared in ad­vance?

A spokesper­son for his State De­part­ment even scolded re­porters who pressed for more clar­ity: “I know you all want to ob­sess over state­ments and all of that and try to want to make a lot of noise,” Heather Nauert said.

Some re­ports said Trump’s words were im­pro­vised and sur­prised his own aides. The New York Times and CNN said the sheet of paper Trump was glanc­ing at while ut­ter­ing his threat was not a state­ment on North Korea — but a fact sheet on the opi­oid cri­sis.

A spokesper­son for Trump had a more nu­anced ex­pla­na­tion.

Sarah Huck­abee Sanders said the mes­sage had been co-or­di­nated — to a cer­tain ex­tent. She said the pres­i­dent’s chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly and the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, were aware of the tone he would take but: “The words were his own.”

The head­line-grab­bing state­ment caused some peo­ple, not just the news me­dia, to snap to at­ten­tion. It also prompted a spike in Google searches within the United States for, “How to sur­vive a nu­clear at­tack,” which in­creased 100fold from a day ear­lier.

What the pres­i­dent specif­i­cally threat­ened was re­tal­i­a­tion in the event of “any more threats to the United States” — a stakes-es­ca­lat­ing gam­bit, given that the trashtalk­ing, nuke-chas­ing, Her­mit King­dom crosses this thresh­old on a near-daily ba­sis.

In fact, North Korea did it again im­me­di­ately.

The peo­ple of Guam woke up Thurs­day to another pointed threat from Py­ongyang, which vowed to com­plete a plan to at­tack wa­ters near the is­land by mid-Au­gust — adding a time­line to a threat from a day ear­lier that North Korea would cre­ate an “en­velop­ing fire” around Guam. A Cana­dian del­e­ga­tion hap­pened to be at the epi­cen­tre of the drama Wed­nes­day, se­cur­ing the re­lease of a pastor who had been jailed for more than two years in North Korea.

Trump’s sec­re­tary of state was on Guam dur­ing a re­fu­elling lay­over and he de­liv­ered a sooth­ing mes­sage to any­one back home alarmed by the sud­den es­ca­la­tion in rhetoric.

“I think Amer­i­cans should sleep well at night,” said Rex Tiller­son, who spent an hour on the phone with the pres­i­dent af­ter his at­ten­tion-grab­bing threat.

“Have no con­cerns about this par­tic­u­lar rhetoric over the last few days … I think what the pres­i­dent was just reaf­firm­ing is the United States has the ca­pa­bil­ity to fully de­fend it­self from any at­tack and de­fend our al­lies and we will do so. So the Amer­i­can peo­ple should sleep well tonight.”

But not ev­ery­one down­played the threat. Se­cu­rity aide Se­bas­tian Gorka, com­pared the stand­off with the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis — that tense two-week pe­riod in 1962 when global su­per­pow­ers reached the brink of mu­tual an­ni­hi­la­tion.

SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un ex­changed threats with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Wed­nes­day.

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