Donald Trump lies so frequently and so brazenly that it’s easy to forget that there are political untruths he did not invent. Sometimes, he builds on falsehoods that predated his election, and that enjoy currency among the very institutions that generally restrain his power.
That’s the case in the debate over North Korea. On Monday, The New York Times declared that “the United States has repeatedly suggested in recent months” that it “could threaten pre-emptive military action” against North Korea. On Sunday, The Washington Post—after asking Americans whether they would “support or oppose the U.S. bombing North Korean military targets” in order “to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons”—announced that “Two-thirds of Americans oppose launching a preemptive military strike.” Citing the Post’s findings, The New York Times the same day reported that Americans are “deeply opposed to the kind of pre-emptive military strike” that Trump “has seemed eager to threaten.”
The Times and Post are America’s best newspapers. Their reporting has frequently exposed Trump’s misdeeds. But in this case, through their language, they are abetting his duplicity and his madness. A “preemptive strike” is an attack on a country that is about to attack you. It’s the equivalent of shooting a man who is about to draw his pistol in a gunfight. That’s very different than bombing North Korea “to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons” and it’s very different than what the Trump administration has spent the last few months debating. For the most part, White House has been mulling a “preventive” strike: a strike aimed, not at stopping an imminent North Korean attack, but at stopping North Korea from gaining the means to launch such an attack. It’s the equivalent of shooting a man because he’s on his way to the store to purchase a pistol or because he’s at a firing range checking to see if it works.