It’s no accident that the latest blockbuster to portray President Donald Trump as volatile and erratic is called “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
The book’s title is a play on Trump’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea and “totally destroy” that country if its leaders don’t stop threatening America. The title links Trump’s tumultuous style with his reckless nuclear tweets against Pyongyang.
In a recent tweet that matched the nuttiness of the North Korean leader, Trump bragged that his nuclear button was bigger and more potent than Kim Jong Un’s – “and my Button works!”
Call it Button Man vs. Rocket Man. (Of course, there is no button. The nuclear codes are written on a plastic card called “the biscuit” that is carried in a briefcase by an aide.) If it were a comic strip, we might be laughing at their competitive bombast.
But, given the president’s approach to North Korea, there’s good reason to worry he might decide to prove his is bigger – and start a disastrous nuclear conflict. Kim’s proposal this week for direct talks between North and South Korea offers little hope of addressing such fears.
Worries about Trump’s button finger were seeping out of Washington even before the book lollapalooza. In October, GOP Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that Trump’s reckless tweets on North Korea could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”
In November, Corker co-chaired a hearing on who has authorization to order the use of nuclear weapons – the first such hearing in over four decades. To sum up: There’s no question that the president has sole authority to order their use if the United States is attacked.
But there is little to stop a president from ordering a preemptive nuclear attack if he deems it necessary (although one hopes for restraining advice from the State Department and Pentagon). However, even National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has spoken of preventive war.
“Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account, without the check and balance of the United States Congress,” warned Sen. Edward Markey (D., Mass.) at the Senate hearings.
Efforts by Markey to push legislation prohibiting the president from authorizing a first strike without a congressional declaration of war aren’t going anywhere.
Nor has the public caught on to the risks of the president’s overall approach to the North Korean conundrum. Give the Trump team full credit for obtaining tougher U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and pressing China to tighten its trade and oil exports to Pyongyang.
On one level, the tough White House stance on North Korea’s nuclear program has reaped successes. But Trump has failed to take full advantage of those gains.
That’s because the purpose of tougher sanctions should be to drive Rocket Man to negotiate about his weapons at the bargaining table, with Washington, Beijing, and Moscow all pressing on him to freeze the program. Yet Trump has publicly undermined efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to get such negotiations going – insisting that North Korea must first commit to total denuclearization.
That is not going to happen. North Korea has been producing nuclear weapons since 2006 and is already, effectively, a nuclear power.
“Zero nuclear weapons is not a feasible outcome given the size of North Korea’s program, and its perception that those weapons guarantee regime survival,” says Robert Litwak, vice president of the Wilson Center and author of “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout.”
The urgent goal now is to get Pyongyang to the table before the regime succeeds in perfecting intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads capable of surviving reentry – thus truly threatening our country. “The only feasible objective,” says Litwak, “is some kind of freeze to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.”
This, of course, will not be easy. North Korea has a track record of cheating and of blackmail. Kim will try to soft-talk or threaten South Korea into splitting from its American ally. That is Pyongyang’s goal in pursuing narrow negotiations with Seoul over whether North Korea will attend the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea next month.
Yet if Trump insists on winning big – meaning Kim must agree to zero nukes before substantive talks – he will box himself into a corner. Rocket Man will continue to test, and goad Trump via tweets, and Trump will goad back. The upshot may be a Trump temptation to strike first, and use nukes to try to preempt Kim’s retaliation.
Such a war could cause tens or hundreds of thousands of South Korean casualties, and huge casualties to U.S. troops and dependents in South Korea. And without ground troops, the U.S. might not be able to find, or prevent the use of, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
When asked, at an Oct. 30 congressional hearing, whether the president could order a first strike, without congressional authorization, Defense Secretary James Mattis replied he could imagine such a strike if an attack were imminent, “although, it’s not the only tool in the tool kit to try to address something like that.”
“I think that we have to keep trust, keep faith in the system that we have that has proven effective now for decades,” Mattis added. He didn’t address whether that system has been shredded by a president whose fingers are reckless.
That is a question more Americans now need to ask and demand that their legislators publicly raise.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.