Kelly needs to draw a red line for Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly needs to draw a red line. Not with North Korea but with Pres­i­dent Trump. For the sake of Kelly’s own rep­u­ta­tion but even more for the sake of the coun­try, there can be no more pres­i­den­tial im­prov on the sub­ject of North Korea or mil­i­tary threats in gen­eral.

This red line should be both in­vis­i­ble and im­preg­nable. Only Kelly and the pres­i­dent should know it ex­ists, but they should also have a clear un­der­stand­ing: If it is crossed, Kelly will leave. This is essen­tial and, more im­por­tant, achiev­able.

Draw­ing this line is essen­tial be­cause Trump’s bel­li­cose im­petu­os­ity must be con­tained. Words mat­ter, and the words of a pres­i­dent mat­ter most. There­fore, they must be care­fully cal­i­brated and vet­ted. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s adlibbed blun­der on Syria and chem­i­cal weapons taught that red lines once drawn are not eas­ily erased; if they are crossed with­out con­se­quences, pres­i­den­tial cred­i­bil­ity erodes.

Thus the dan­ger of Trump’s off-the-cuff warn­ing: “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.” Pre­dictably, North Korea re­sponded with es­ca­lat­ing threats of its own: that it was “care­fully ex­am­in­ing” plans for “an en­velop­ing fire” around Guam, and then that it would “turn the U.S. main­land into the theater of a nu­clear war” at the first hint of an im­pend­ing U.S. at­tack.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials were left scur­ry­ing to clean up and re­frame lan­guage that none had re­viewed in ad­vance. “The words were his own,” said White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders. “The tone and strength of the mes­sage were dis­cussed be­fore­hand.” Trans­la­tion: No one knew pre­cisely what was com­ing. This is no way for any pres­i­dent to con­duct for­eign pol­icy, cer­tainly not this pres­i­dent and cer­tainly not in a sit­u­a­tion with stakes so high.

Mop­ping up, De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis’s ap­proach was to sug­gest that Trump should be taken se­ri­ously but not lit­er­ally; his retelling moved the red line from threat to ac­tion, as in, North Korea “should cease any con­sid­er­a­tion of ac­tions that would lead to the end of its regime and the de­struc­tion of its peo­ple.” Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son took the tack of ad­vis­ing that Trump should be taken se­ri­ously and not se­ri­ously, de­pend­ing on the lis­tener; Tiller­son en­cour­aged Amer­i­cans to “sleep well at night and have no con­cerns about this par­tic­u­lar rhetoric” even as he as­serted that Trump had to em­ploy “lan­guage that Kim Jong Un would un­der­stand, be­cause he doesn’t seem to un­der­stand diplo­matic lan­guage.”

White House aide Se­bas­tian Gorka met Tiller­son’s call for calm with omi­nous analo­gies to the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis. A se­nior White House of­fi­cial told The Post, in­cred­i­bly, that “‘fire and fury’ doesn’t al­ways mean nu­clear. It can mean any num­ber of things. It is as if peo­ple see [Trump] as an un­hinged mad­man.” At the State De­part­ment, spokesman Heather Nauert gamely in­sisted that “we are all singing from the same hymn book.” Uh­huh.

This atonal ca­coph­ony is what hap­pens with­out mes­sage con­trol. But is it re­al­is­tic to speak of con­trol­ling Trump? No pres­i­dent likes be­ing told what to do; Trump does not merely chafe at such in­struc­tion, he ac­tively rebels against it. So some peo­ple look at Kelly’s thank­less task and con­clude that he would be lucky to be able to man­age down — to con­tain staff chaos and feud­ing. In this assess­ment, manag­ing up is unattain­able when up means Trump.

Yes, but, this is a mat­ter of man­age­rial triage. Let Trump be Trump, when it comes to do­mes­tic pol­icy and pol­i­tics. Let him pick Twit­ter fights ga­lore, whether with fel­low Repub­li­cans such as Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (Ky.) or with Democrats such as Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal (Conn.), just to name last week’s tar­gets. Let him watch “Fox & Friends” to his heart’s con­tent; let him even as­sail the Rus­sia “witch hunt” or the “Fake News Sup­pres­sion Polls.”

Just cor­don off for­eign pol­icy, or the parts of for­eign pol­icy that could lead to mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion. In­struct the pres­i­dent that state­ments on those sub­jects must be de­bated and scripted. Would Trump agree? Would he — could he — com­ply? The chaotic, risky al­ter­na­tive makes it worth the try. Kelly’s power is at its apex. Trump can­not af­ford to lose an­other chief of staff. So the pres­i­dent needs Kelly more than Kelly needs this headache of a job.

And if the gen­eral wants to avoid be­ing treated as just an­other me­nial fly-swat­ter, he will seize this mo­ment to as­sert con­trol, or leave hav­ing at least tried.

Let Trump be Trump, when it comes to do­mes­tic pol­icy and pol­i­tics. Just cor­don off for­eign pol­icy, or the parts of for­eign pol­icy that could lead to mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion.

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