Are Trump's Feuds With Tillerson and Corker a Prelude to War?

While it’s tempting to view the spats as just more palace intrigue, they reveal a president impatient with diplomacy and drawn toward military force.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

It is natural to see Donald Trump’s latest feuds, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Senator Bob Corker, as just the most recent outbursts from a president who is only comfortable amid feuding. This is, after all, the guy who spent weeks humiliating his attorney general (but never cut him loose) and who runs his Oval Office on the same terms as his reality show, encouraging rivalries and backstabbing. What’s new is the targets.

There’s certainly some slapstick to the latest round. It includes Trump claiming Corker begged for an endorsement before deciding to retire (all reporting suggests that is untrue), and Corker referring to the White House as an “adult day care” while all but calling the president a liar: “I don’t know why the president tweets out things that are not true. You know he does it, everyone knows he does it, but he does.” A headline in the national paper of record states, accurately and forthrightly, “Trump Mocks Bob Corker’s Height, Escalating Feud with a Key Republican.”

Even more absurdly, the tiff features Trump challenging Tillerson, who reportedly called him a “moron” over the summer, to an intellectual duel: “I think it's fake news, but if he did that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.” (A State Department spokeswoman clarified Tuesday that the secretary’s IQ is “high.”)

The stakes of these feuds are most readily calculated in very immediate terms—What does this mean for Trump’s legislative agenda?—or very abstract ones—Is Trump destroying the American presidency? The public and press are so accustomed to such outbreaks that we can easily read past the surface and search for the underlying subtexts and palace intrigue. On face, however, the splits with Tillerson and Corker both center around the same material question of whether the United States will start a shooting war, most likely with North Korea.

After a Twitter volley over the weekend, Corker told the Times that he worried Trump didn’t understand the stakes of his statements on foreign-policy questions, viewing it as a “reality show of some kind.”

“He doesn’t realize that, you know, that we could be heading towards World War III with the kinds of comments that he’s making,” said Corker, who is the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and close to Tillerson, and therefore particularly well-placed to analyze Trump’s foreign-policy choices.

There are two obvious things Corker could be talking about (and one hopes no less-obvious ones): North Korea and Iran. Both of them also intersect with Trump’s differences with Tillerson, too.

In the immediate term, Trump is reportedly on the verge of de-certifying the deal that Barack Obama struck to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. The president would likely then punt that matter to Congress, leaving it to decide whether or not the deal remains in place. Trump has long been bluntly critical of the Iran deal, but many people around him are not, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, both of whom are generally Iran hawks but supportive of the nuclear agreement. So is Corker, who struck a deal with Democratic Senator Ben Cardin in 2015 that allowed the agreement to go forward. On Sunday, Trump said Corker was “largely responsible for the horrendous Iran Deal!”

The case for the Iran deal, even among some of those who were critical of it at the time, comes down to a couple major points. One is that a non-proliferating Iran, even under less-than-ideal terms, is better than a proliferating Iran, especially because it might encourage other regional powers (notably the Gulf states) to develop their own nuclear programs, and could weaken American muscle in the Middle East. Another is that pulling out of the deal would create fractures with allies who continue to back it; withdrawing would destroy American credibility, and contra Trump there is little chance of renegotiating at better terms. Both of those reasons make war—something that could spiral into a world war—more likely, as Ilan Goldenberg and Mara Karlin write for The Atlantic Monday.

The more apparently urgent venue for World War III to break out is, of course, on the Korean peninsula. Tillerson reportedly called Trump a moron in July, after a disastrous Trump speech to the Boy Scouts of America (an organization Tillerson previously led), but the current tiff between the men began October 1, with these tweets, three days before the “moron” story broke”

Trump referred to comments Tillerson made September 30, saying that the U.S. had some direct lines of communication with the North Korean regime, short of actually being in negotiations. Trump has repeatedly undercut Tillerson, publicly contradicting his secretary of state. (He says he has not.) The president’s apologists present this as some sort of good-cop, bad-cop routine, but that shtick doesn’t work when Trump is Tillerson’s boss and when he has repeatedly differed from Tillerson around the world; instead, it imparts the lesson that Tillerson need not and in fact should not be taken seriously, because he does not speak for Trump.

Moreover, Trump keeps telegraphing a desire to start a war with North Korea.  Having first drawn blood with his missile-strike on Syria, and been pleased with the reaction from the public and press, Trump seems to want more. Although the official U.S. position, as outlined by other officials, is that all options are on the table, the president keeps suggesting that really only one is on the table. Why else would he so publicly slam the door shut on Tillerson’s open channel to Pyongyang? What else might he mean when he promised that the U.S. will “do what has to be done”?

There are other indications, too. In August, after a North Korean missile test, he said, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal statement, and as I said they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” (Aides said the language was improvised, and could not explain what he meant by it.)

In mid-September, at the United Nations General Assembly, Trump said that if Pyongyang’s aggression continued, the U.S. “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” also saying, “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”

Last week, a group of top military brass visited the White House, and Trump made ominous comments to the press.

“Maybe it’s the calm before the storm,” he said. “Could be, the calm. The calm before the storm. We have the world's great military people in this room, I will tell you that. And uh, we're gonna have a great evening.”

When asked for clarification, on two separate occasions, he replied, “You’ll find out.” Even Vox, which prides itself on explaining the news, threw up its hands in perplexity.

The president on Tuesday hosted Henry Kissinger, a notable proponent of dropping bombs on Asian countries, at the White House. The president is schedule to visit South Korea in November, and might visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea—a setting where he could easily escalate tensions with a remark, whether careless or planned.

Of course, Trump could be just talking trash, trying to do the geopolitical dozens with Kim Jong Un, but there’s no way for Kim, or diplomats from other foreign countries, or the American people to know the difference. (North Korea itself claimed Trump’s UN remarks constituted a declaration of war, though the regime has a long history of similar comments.) The impression of a slouch toward war is sharpened by other evidence. Mattis, for example, on Monday told Army generals to be ready to fight a war in Korea. Some of that is standard readiness, but given his own bleak view of a military solution—Mattis said earlier this year that a war against North Korea would be “catastrophic” and “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people's lifetimes”—it could also be an indication of growing probability of a shooting war.

Several outlets have juicy reports published Monday or Tuesday that all center around the same phenomenon: the question among Trump’s aides of how to manage him.

The Washington Post:

One Trump confidant likened the president to a whistling teapot, saying that when he does not blow off steam, he can turn into a pressure cooker and explode. “I think we are in pressure cooker territory,” said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.

Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman:

The next few weeks will surely test Trump and Kelly’s relationship. As Kelly seeks to revive Trump’s stalled tax plan, prevent the Iran nuclear deal from falling apart, and avoid war with North Korea, he’ll also face the challenge of having to manage Trump at Mar-a-Lago. According to two sources, Kelly has developed a Mar-a-Lago strategy to prevent Trump from soliciting advice from members and friends. (In February, Trump turned his dinner table into an open-air Situation Room when North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile.) Sources briefed on Kelly’s plans said he will attempt to keep Trump “out of the dining room.” The plan looks sound on paper—but, to his staff, Trump can be a formidable adversary.

Interviews with 10 current and former administration officials, advisers, longtime business associates and others close to Trump describe a process in which they try to install guardrails for a president who goes on gut feeling — and many days are spent managing the president, just as Corker said.

One of the things those guardrails are meant to avoid is, for example, the president precipitously starting a war. But as Sherman writes, Trump is a formidable adversary, and indeed aides have not been able to prevent his off-the-cuff remarks about “fire and fury” and “the calm before the storm.”

The long parade of bellicose North Korea comments could, perversely, be evidence that efforts to defer military action have been working. Politico tells how fired former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus would often persuade the president to put off some action until “next week.” “Delaying the decision would give Priebus and others a chance to change his mind or bring in advisers to speak with Trump—and in some cases, to ensure Trump would drop the idea altogether and move on,” Josh Dawsey writes.

Yet the road to a major war is usually a long one. The Bush administration spent months laying the groundwork, both publicly and privately, for the war in Iraq. At this point, the president has demonstrated a pattern of comments that indicate a preference for a military response to North Korea, although it’s not clear that his preference will prevail. That pattern is enough that Trump’s feuds with Tillerson and Corker deserve to be seen not merely as wacky, somewhat disconcerting antics, but as part of a potential move toward a war—whether that’s World War III or not.