That statement stunned many observers, since it was a significant escalation in rhetoric. The U.S. has previously said that North Korea should not be allowed to threaten the United States with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. But to say that the U.S. wouldn’t even tolerate verbal threats? After all, as I noted yesterday, one of the few certainties in the decades-long, failed effort to contain North Korea’s nuclear program is that Pyongyang will make threats. Indeed, within hours, Kim Jong Un was threatening to attack the U.S. territory of Guam.
Just like that, a red line had been drawn and crossed. And that immediate problem obscured the bigger one, which is that, as The Washington Post reported Tuesday, U.S. intelligence agencies think that North Korea may already have the capability to attach nuclear warheads to ICBMs.
Where did Trump come up with the “fire and fury” formulation? As he spoke before cameras in New Jersey, he seemed to be looking occasionally at a sheet of talking points on the table. But it turns out those all pertained to a meeting on the opioid crisis; he declared it “a problem the likes of which we have never seen.” The North Korea remarks, which included a similar phrase, were improvised on the spot, like so many Trane choruses on “Impressions,” according to The New York Times:
His ominous warning to Pyongyang was entirely improvised, according to several people with direct knowledge of what unfolded. In discussions with advisers beforehand, he had not run the specific language by them, though he had talked over possible responses in a general way.
The Times reports that there are differing opinions in the White House about how to handle Korea—a group led by Steve Bannon favors a more conciliatory approach, while National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster wants a tougher response. Although Trump has used the phrase in question privately,
Neither camp advocated language like “fire and fury,” according to the people involved. Among those taken by surprise, they said, was John F. Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who has just taken over as White House chief of staff and has been with the president at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, for his working vacation.
Since Kelly took over as chief of staff, he has been credited with some tentative steps to instill discipline in an entropic White House. But as has been clear since Kelly’s appointment, his greatest challenge is not getting his staff in line but figuring out how to channel the president’s energy and prevent surprises. The incident suggests Kelly hasn’t solved that puzzle yet.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders disputed the Times report, but she did not dispute that Trump’s specific wording was improvised.
“General Kelly and others on the NSC team were well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery. The words were his own,” she said. “The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand. They were clear the president was going to respond to North Korea’s threats following the sanctions with a strong message in no uncertain terms.”