The dis­con­nect be­tween Trump’s talk and pol­icy

North Korea cri­sis shows how he and his Cabi­net are not al­ways on same page.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Lauter

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump’s threats against North Korea have high­lighted as never be­fore the ten­sion be­tween the pres­i­dent’s du­ties as chief ex­ec­u­tive and the role he of­ten seems to pre­fer as the coun­try’s high­est-profile TV and In­ter­net com­men­ta­tor.

De­spite Trump’s blus­tery warn­ing of “fire and fury,” which he am­pli­fied fur­ther in com­ments to re­porters on Thurs­day, war­ships are not known to be mov­ing to­ward the Korean penin­sula, a tac­tic de­lib­er­ately pub­li­cized dur­ing pre­vi­ous tense times to sig­nal U.S. re­solve. The U.S. has not re­in­forced troop lev­els in South Korea, as Pres­i­dent Clin­ton was about to do in 1994, when the two coun­tries came to the brink of war. U.S. de­pen­dents have not been or­dered out, nor have U.S. nu­clear weapons been sent back in to South Korea.

In­stead, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said Amer­i­cans should “sleep well at night” and has pressed for talks, al­beit with pre­con­di­tions that the North Kore­ans so far have not been will­ing to meet.

On Thurs­day, even as Trump said his pre­vi­ous state­ments were per­haps not tough enough, De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis em­pha­sized diplo­macy.

“Do I have mil­i­tary op­tions? Of course I do. That’s my re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Mat­tis told re­porters as he flew to Seattle for meet­ings with tech in­dus­try of­fi­cials.

“But what we’re try­ing to do here is leave it loud and clear ... in the diplo­matic

arena: It is North Korea’s choice. Do you want a much bet­ter fu­ture — the en­tire world com­mu­nity is say­ing one thing — or do you want a much worse fu­ture?”

The con­trast may be a good cop/bad cop ef­fort by the pres­i­dent and his Cabi­net mem­bers. But the open con­fir­ma­tion by ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials this week that Trump ad-libbed his “fire and fury” dec­la­ra­tion with­out con­sult­ing his main ad­vi­sors on the spe­cific word­ing sug­gests more a sud­den im­pulse than a care­fully con­sid­ered tac­tic.

The fre­quent dis­con­nect be­tween Trump’s words and ac­tual pol­icy has been vis­i­ble for months. On ma­jor is­sues — health­care, trade, taxes — as well as on more spe­cific ques­tions such as whether trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans may serve in the mil­i­tary, Trump has made dec­la­ra­tions that the rest of the ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress have of­ten ig­nored or side­tracked.

The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion dif­fers from those ear­lier ex­am­ples be­cause of the con­text and risk. In the fraught stand­off with North Korea, where mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion or mis­un­der­stand­ing could trig­ger a dev­as­tat­ing war, the ques­tion of how to re­act to Trump has taken on tremen­dous grav­ity.

“Se­ri­ously, but not lit­er­ally” is the phrase coined by one writer dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and adopted by some of Trump’s aides ever since.

U.S. of­fi­cials can only guess how Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, might in­ter­pret Trump’s words. For­eign gov­ern­ments typ­i­cally have a hard time in­ter­pret­ing U.S. pol­i­tics and the free­wheel­ing na­ture of Amer­i­can TV-driven dis­course. That’s even more true with a coun­try like North Korea, whose lead­ers have min­i­mal con­tact with Amer­i­cans.

The North Kore­ans may be more fo­cused on U.S.South Korean joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, the next round of which is sched­uled to take place this month. The ex­er­cises were planned long in ad­vance, but this one will be care­fully watched for signs of whether the U.S. and its al­lies are try­ing to avoid mak­ing Py­ongyang ner­vous or, to the con­trary, seek­ing ways to in­crease the pres­sure on Kim’s gov­ern­ment.

Both sides will also be wait­ing to see how other coun­tries, es­pe­cially China, en­force the new eco­nomic sanc­tions against North Korea that the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil ap­proved Satur­day. Some for­eign pol­icy an­a­lysts be­lieve Trump’s rhetoric might prompt China to crack down on North Korean trade in the hopes of pres­sur­ing Py­ongyang into ne­go­ti­at­ing. Oth­ers think the pres­i­dent’s blunt lan­guage could have just the op­po­site ef­fect.

Even in Wash­ing­ton, in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Trump have var­ied widely. Some of­fi­cials have re­acted to Trump’s words in ways that un­der­line a re­mark Anthony Scara­mucci, Trump’s short-lived com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, made shortly be­fore he lost his job:

“There are peo­ple in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion who think it is their job to save Amer­ica from this pres­i­dent,” he said in an in­ter­view with CNN.

By con­trast, some of Trump’s clos­est acolytes have de­picted his com­ments in heroic terms.

“This is anal­o­gous to the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis,” White House aide Sebastian Gorka de­clared on Trump’s fa­vorite TV pro­gram, “Fox & Friends,” as he ex­horted Amer­i­cans to unite be­hind the pres­i­dent.

The cur­rent stand­off and the Cuban one more than half a cen­tury ago, how­ever, dif­fer in nearly all im­por­tant re­spects but one — both fea­tured new pres­i­dents be­ing tested by a high-stakes con­fronta­tion in­volv­ing nu­clear weapons.

The Cuba cri­sis in­volved two nu­clear-armed pow­ers de­lib­er­ately tak­ing steps that threat­ened war, steadily es­ca­lat­ing un­til both found a for­mula that al­lowed them to back down. It also fea­tured a pres­i­dent, John F. Kennedy, who mi­cro­man­aged each mo­ment of the stand­off, as his­tor­i­cal ac­counts have shown.

The cur­rent stand­off in­volves a vast dis­par­ity in power be­tween the two coun­tries and no ob­vi­ous ef­fort at es­ca­la­tion.

As for the pres­i­dent, Trump has ducked in and out of the Korea cri­sis, tak­ing oc­ca­sional meet­ings be­tween va­ca­tion rounds of golf at his re­sort in Bed­min­ster, N.J. He has seemed mostly con­tent to al­low oth­ers, es­pe­cially Tiller­son and Mat­tis, to man­age the sit­u­a­tion.

Hav­ing said his piece on North Korea on Tues­day, Trump ap­peared to have moved on.

But on Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, be­fore re­new­ing his rhetor­i­cal vol­leys at Kim, Trump had a new tar­get in his sights, his party’s leader in the Se­nate, Mitch McCon­nell.

In a se­ries of mes­sages on Twit­ter, he sharply crit­i­cized the Kentucky se­na­tor for hav­ing failed to de­liver a bill to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act. The jabs dis­turbed Repub­li­can of­fi­cials, who ques­tioned how a feud would help their leg­isla­tive agenda. But for Trump, that may be se­condary. He was back in his el­e­ment as com­men­ta­tor in chief.

Bren­dan Smialowski AFP/Getty Images

DE­FENSE SEC­RE­TARY James N. Mat­tis, cen­ter, and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, right, pre­pare to meet with sen­a­tors this month. Both Mat­tis and Tiller­son have ad­vo­cated diplo­macy with North Korea.

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