The never-mind presidency of Donald Trump

The Observer editorial board

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson worked this week to calm the North Korea crisis after the president’s “fire and fury” remarks.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson worked this week to calm the North Korea crisis after the president’s “fire and fury” remarks. AP

Never mind.

When it comes to diplomacy, that’s not the best message to be sending to allies and foes. But it’s been a regular feature of Donald Trump’s presidency, and this week we’re seeing how dangerous it can be.

On Tuesday, the president had strong words for North Korea, which has conducted several recent tests to show off its rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal. Said Trump: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.” Or, said the president: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

North Korea’s response? It issued another threat, saying a strike plan was ready for the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

It’s the type of verbal escalation that should be expected from a regime that speaks in exclamation points. That’s why, for decades, U.S. administrations have largely preferred a firm but publicly non-confrontational approach with North Korea.

It’s also why this week, U.S. officials quickly tried to walk back the President’s comments and calm the domestic and international upheaval it created. “Americans should sleep well at night (and) have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In other words, never mind.

As it turns out, at least some administration and military officials were taken aback by the president’s “fire and fury” remarks, which he hadn’t run through the normal vetting with top advisers. And this is far from the first time the adults in the room have had to smooth over or step back something Trump blurted out. That includes the president signaling that we would not honor our defense commitments to NATO, or actually saying the words “The Germans are very, very bad.”

Each time, administration officials have been faced with the delicate task of backing up the president while mopping up the mess he’s made. Sometimes officials have had to flat-out refute their boss, such as when Trump called Qatar a sponsor of terrorism or told South Korea it should pay for a $1 billion U.S. missile defense system.

Now, with the stakes at their highest, the administration continues to battle itself. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis found an appropriate balance this week of advocating a diplomatic resolution with North Korea while soberly reminding everyone that the U.S. and its allies have military might. But White House adviser Sebastian Gorka thumped his chest in an interview with the FOX New Channel by declaring “Don’t test this White House, Pyonyang.”

This dissonance worries allies and threatens the actual progress that has been made on North Korea. As this editorial board has noted, the Trump administration should be applauded for securing a unanimous vote in the U.N. to sanction North Korea over its recent provocations. Experts believe these kind of joint efforts, especially with China, are our best chance moving forward to limit North Korea’s arsenal and maintain a delicate peace.

No, diplomacy and sanctions haven’t stopped North Korea from growing into the nuclear threat its become. Perhaps nothing would have. But as key allies noted pleadingly this week, President Trump’s saber-ratting sure doesn’t help.

We’re not optimistic Trump will learn that lesson, especially given his refusal Thursday to tone down his remarks. But we hope officials can persuade him, perhaps sometime before it’s too late to never mind.