When President Donald Trump predicted Thursday that there could soon be a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, critics were quick to write it off as yet another needlessly provocative and un-presidential outburst from the man occupying the Oval Office.
But aides and close associates of Trump tell a very different story. They say there’s an intentional communications strategy at work, designed by the president himself: Trump knocks opponents off-balance with unexpected tweets or comments that upset the status quo, setting up the shot, then his cabinet secretaries come in as “sweepers,” laying out the new policy in more detail, calming the situation, and landing foreign policy goals.
That’s just what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did Friday, in remarks at the UN intended to serve as a road map out of the confrontation for the Hermit Kingdom, suggesting Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong Un take steps to show good faith, and holding out the tantalizing reward of millions in U.S. aid for steps toward denuclearization.
“That was deliberate,” a senior administration official said, a prominent mention that the Trump administration would be willing to help Pyongyang feed its starving millions.
North Korea’s 33-year-old ruler may not have acted exactly the way the White House wanted, firing off a medium-range missile that broke apart a few minutes after launch as dawn approached on the Korean Peninsula Saturday morning, local time.
The White House response was terse: “The Administration is aware of the most recent North Korean missile test. The President has been briefed.”
Shortly afterward, Trump tweeted as if talking to a recalcitrant child: “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”
The insult to Kim is intentional—the curt statements a sort of “time out” for a toddler, rather than rewarding a tantrum with parental attention or an overblown U.S. official reaction, a senior administration official explained to The Daily Beast Friday. The tweet is the equivalent of saying, I’ll treat you like the child you are.
It was Trump’s idea for his secretary of State to issue similarly-laconic statements after Kim’s last provocative weapons test in early April, much like the brevity of the Friday evening White House statement. Tillerson’s response was only 23 words long, including the maddeningly vague: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”
State Department officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the president’s message coordination with Tillerson.
“He always talked about the role for a good cop-bad cop in negotiations, and this is a negotiation,” said a former transition official of Trump’s public comments about North Korea, speaking anonymously to describe private conversations with the president.
Skeptics on both sides of the political aisle aren’t so sure the message gambit is wise.
“That’s a great strategy when you say I’m going to build a wall. But when you have that kind of Art of the Deal messaging strategy, I’m just afraid it’s a dangerous game to play,” said Republican communications consultant Alice Stewart. “If there’s a method to his madness, I will be relieved… but dealing with a madman, you have to be very careful.”
Trump has studied other presidents known for using unpredictability to keep their opponents off balance, consulting with Henry Kissinger, former aide to President Richard Nixon, about how “Tricky Dick” used that seeming capriciousness to great effect.
And during the campaign, Trump lamented that the Obama administration was telegraphing its moves against the so-called Islamic State, instead of launching a “sneak attack,” though that ignored the fact that Iraq, not the U.S., was making such announcements.
U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), the Ranking Member of the Armed Services Committee, said that Trump’s version of Nixon “madman” approach was more crazy than crazy-like-a-fox.
“The President’s posturing through tweets does not inspire confidence from our allies,” he said in a statement this week. “Instead of communicating in 140 characters, the President needs a more thoughtful and strategic messaging campaign.”
Trump has backed up his more aggressive taunts by sending the USS Carl Vinson carrier group to the region, and speeding up the deployment of a missile defense system to South Korea. (A system that Trump then demanded on Thursday that Seoul pay for—possibly another provocative opening gambit meant to lead to more measured negotiation with whomever wins the upcoming South Korean presidential election.)
U.S. officials have also called on China, North Korea’s major trading partner, to tighten sanctions, and China has cut off coal supplies from its ally for 2017—though Beijing took in a surge of coal deliveries before the moratorium began, meaning North Korea won’t likely suffer much from the rest-of-year export pause.
In Tillerson’s remarks to the UN Friday, he again called on China and others to tighten sanctions, as well as threatening to enact “third party sanctions” against those who support the regime or its weapons programs. That was a not-so-veiled message to China that the U.S. may take unilateral action against Chinese banks or companies that keep doing business with the regime.
Tillerson also made sure to stress the U.S. is not looking to change the regime, nor did he insist on total de-nuclearization as a prerequisite for possible talks.
“North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks,” he said.
“We are not setting preconditions we can’t achieve,” the senior administration official said of the message. “If I make denuclearization the predicate of my policy, I’m going to fail,” the official added of Tillerson’s thinking. Instead, they want to see Kim Jong Un come up with moves of good faith that could restart some form of talks.
The hope is that Pyongyang would eventually follow the example of Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear weapons in 2003 and was welcomed back into the international community—perhaps an unfortunate example given how Gaddafi ended up—dead at the hands of rebels backed by a NATO- and U.S.-backed civil war.
“It doesn’t sound like an unreasonable approach,” Daniel Glaser, former Treasury assistant secretary for terrorist financing told The Daily Beast. But talks can become an end unto themselves, the former Obama administration official said in an interview. “One of the traps you can fall into is talks drag on indefinitely and all the time, North Korea is advancing its technology and building its arsenal.”