Wednesday will be remembered as the day President Donald Trump torched Steve Bannon after his former chief strategist said Trump’s son may have committed treason. But below the new layer of essentially Trumpian drama, a good chunk of Washington, D.C. was consumed by a presidential missive from the night before.
In a wild and cavalier tweet Tuesday evening, President Trump boasted about the size of the “button” he could hit to annihilate North Korea with a nuke. It was a remarkable social-media dispatch that prompted macabre thoughts about the end of life on Planet Earth.
Inside the White House, however, the mood was notable only for its serenity.
Aides to the president generally didn’t bat an eye at his latest, most provocative, salvo against North Korea’s brutal dictator, Kim Jong Un. They’ve come to accept that this is the man for whom they work. It’s a dark existence. But it is—judging from the multiple White House officials and administration veterans The Daily Beast talked to for this story—also one they have normalized internally.
“It’s a running joke [in the West Wing] that nuclear war could start from the private residence during Fox [News] prime time,” one senior Trump aide told The Daily Beast. “Sometimes the joking includes more uncomfortable [or] nervous laughter than other times.”
After a year in office, much of Washington has changed, but the president himself has not. Left alone in his residence at night, Trump will watch Fox News and will tweet his feelings. Aides in the administration say they approach it as a facet of the job. And that means not growing alarmed even when the boss talks about brandishing a nuke.
“When he goes off on stuff like this, it’s the [White House’s] job to rally around him and make up reasons for why it was OK,” a former senior Trump administration official said.
But while the White House was presenting an all-is-calm-façade, the mood elsewhere in D.C. was decidedly more alarmed. Foreign-policy experts were aghast at the school-yard taunting around a nuclear standoff. Sen. Ed Markey, (D-MA) said the tweet bordered “on presidential malpractice.” And Republicans, as they are prone to do in such moments, ducked the matter entirely
“Well I don’t have a comment on the president’s tweets,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA).
Such responses would, in more conventional times, persuade the president to turn down the proverbial dial or perhaps reconsider his approach. But Trump has no plans to do either. Part of the reason is he’s encountered little, if any, pushback from inside his administration. The “standard operating procedure [in these cases] is, for most people working in the [Trump] White House, to just roll with the punches,” another former White House official told The Daily Beast late last year.
But beyond that, even outside the administration, Trump’s most prominent allies are inclined to assure his tack is just right.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—a top outside adviser to the president who was at the White House on Wednesday—told The Daily Beast that “the news media reaction [to the North Korea tweet] strikes me as over the top,” and said he recalled some people on social media claiming Trump was using the “button” as a “phallic symbol.”
“Look, it’s pretty straightforward: We have more nuclear weapons... and we’re not likely to be intimidated,” Gingrich continued.
When asked if he thought the president’s tweet was wise, Gingrich replied, “I think it is who he is,” before chuckling. “The news media will have eight years of him doing stuff like this… [But] by contrast, Obama still hasn’t tweeted anything about the Iranians. Look at that for contrast… If you’re asking would I rather have an active, aggressive president than one hiding, I think I’d prefer the Trump model.”
Chris Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump’s, emailed that “overall the president’s tweets are OK.” But, Ruddy added, “on very sensitive issues like this, [Trump’s] tweets should be looked at by his national-security team.”
“I have always said the president should have a review process for his tweets before they go out,” Ruddy said, “it’s just wise.”
Perhaps the most remarkable element of Trump’s North Korea tweet was how quickly he moved on to other topics. A mere 16 minutes following the “nuclear button” outburst, @realDonaldTrump gleefully posted: “I will be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR on Monday at 5:00 o’clock. Subjects will cover Dishonesty & Bad Reporting in various categories from the Fake News Media. Stay tuned!”
It was a remarkable change in direction that reflected the president’s notoriously short attention span. It was also an idea with which Trump has flirted before, often as he vents to friends and aides about the cable news he so often hate-watches.
“We should do a contest, wouldn’t that be fun?” Trump said last month, according to a Republican source close to the administration. “Fake news contest, wouldn’t that be great?”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.