The problem is that Trump has none of these characteristics. He has shown himself to be prolifically dishonest. The president has lied to the public about matters great and small, from the petty (the size of his inauguration crowd) to the serious (accusations of wiretapping, his own position on major matters) to the absurd (outright denying things he said publicly). As a result, Americans are in no position to trust the things he might tell them in a crisis, whether those remarks are delivered from behind the Resolute desk or via tweet.
As if that were not bad enough, foreign leaders can’t trust what he says either. An adversary has no idea whether to take threats from Trump seriously (to say nothing of literally). He’s a man who made empty threats throughout his career, repeatedly suggesting he’d sue people who said and did things he didn’t like. In many cases, he did not follow through. If you’re North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, why should you believe that his threats of force are any more real? Trump’s strategy with North Korea has been compared to Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” in which the former president wanted enemies to believe he was capable of anything, because he was insane. An equally likely—or even more likely—outcome is that North Korea will conclude that Trump is capable of nothing, based on past results.
The dangers are higher because Trump’s counterpart is Kim, himself an untrustworthy and unpredictable interlocutor prone to empty threats. “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess,” my colleague Kathy Gilsinan wrote in April.
But it’s a problem for allies, too, because the United States would want friends in a hot war or in a diplomatic crisis. They also have no reason to trust any assurances that the president makes. As my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg warned on the eve of the election, “Nuclear crises call for, among other things, the most exacting possible calibration of language. This is not a skill Donald Trump would bring to government service.”
Trump’s promises of “fire and fury” do not instill new confidence. His literally inflammatory threat is particularly baffling because of the parameters he laid out: The president warned not that North Korea would be punished fiercely for firing a missile at the United States, or for conducting a missile test, but instead for issuing a threat. Yet that’s inevitable: Threats are North Korea’s major export product. Trump, who ridiculed Barack Obama for allowing Syria to cross his “red line” of chemical-weapons use, is establishing a red line that will almost certainly be crossed—perhaps very soon, if Kim is in a sporting mood.
But even setting aside the public-messaging side of the ledger, should citizens have faith in Trump’s decision-making process? Throughout his life, he has bragged about his reliance on his gut instincts rather than on careful study of the details of a case. His four corporate bankruptcies demonstrate the limitations of that gut. He has a tendency to believe outrageously fake stories, and his staff is reportedly wary of giving him unflattering and unhappy news because he reacts volcanically to it. When told he cannot do something, his impulse is often to insist on doing it.