ROBERT COSTA: “Fire and fury,” and then “locked and loaded.” President Trump ramps up his rhetorical brinksmanship with Kim Jong-un. I’m Robert Costa. We take a closer look at the standoff between the United States and North Korea, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) North Korea better get their act together or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world.
MR. COSTA: The threat of “fire and fury” was not enough for President Trump. He now says the military is “locked and loaded” to counter any threat from North Korea.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) He has disrespected our country greatly, and with me he’s not getting away with it.
MR. COSTA: North Korea dismissed Trump’s remarks as “nonsense” and announced it is working on a plan to attack the American territory of Guam, home to two U.S. military bases.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) He does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before. It’s not a dare, it’s a statement.
MR. COSTA: The warlike rhetoric is raising questions. What should the U.S. response be? Should the nuclear-armed nation flex its military muscle? Secretary of Defense James Mattis insists diplomatic efforts to contain the threat are working, for now.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES MATTIS: (From video.) You can see the American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results. The tragedy of war is well enough known. It would be catastrophic.
MR. COSTA: Is China the key to deescalating the threat? We explore it all with Yeganeh Torbati of Reuters, Nancy Youssef of Buzzfeed, Michael Duffy of TIME Magazine, and Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics.
ANNOUNCER: Celebrating 50 years, this is Washington Week. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. What a week. We learned that North Korea is now capable of miniaturizing nuclear warheads that could hit the United States. We also witnessed a very public war of words between President Trump and leader Kim Jong-un over the communist country’s nuclear ambitions. And as tensions escalated, the president didn’t pump the brakes; instead, he intensified his ominous warning to North Korea, saying the United States was “locked and loaded” to take military action.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) If North Korea does anything in terms of even thinking about attack of anybody that we love or we represent or our allies or us, they can be very, very nervous.
MR. COSTA: North Korea issued its own warning to the United States, saying “Trump is driving the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war, making such outcries as the ‘U.S. will not rule out a war’” with the – with the North Korean regime.
Nancy, the question tonight is a central one. As we hear all this hot rhetoric, everyone wonders – and you’ve been at the Pentagon all week talking to military officials – are we actually on the brink of war? And does all of this rhetoric correspond to military action?
NANCY YOUSSEF: So one of the best measures of military action is not rhetoric, but logistics – what assets are they moving, and where. To attack North Korea’s capability in a way to eliminate the threat, and at the same time mitigate damage to allies like Japan and South Korea, would take an enormous undertaking by the military, and we simply haven’t seen it.
Let’s start with equipment. There’s only one U.S. carrier in the region, the USS Reagan, and it’s at port. At the peak this year, we had three carriers in the region. You haven’t seen troops moving in in any sustained way. You haven’t seen troops even called back from emergency leave. You haven’t seen squadrons going in. You haven’t seen troops preparing on the – on the U.S. side for future deployments.
And then, in terms of personnel, we haven’t seen evacuations of military families even on Guam, which was the island that was threatened. We haven’t seen the State Department issue a warning to Americans in South Korea. We haven’t seen any of the pieces that need to happen logistically to maintain a sustained campaign.
Now, that said, there’s a very heavy presence in the region, and that allows the U.S. to do first or second strikes, for example. But even if it does that, that opens the door for the North Koreans to have a reason to say we can retaliate. And so, right now, there’s nothing to indicate that there’s a military action happening, and the thing to watch for are those logistics.
MR. COSTA: So those are the cues we’re watching for. So the president says “locked and loaded,” but the military seems to be on pause. And if the military is on pause, I have to wonder, Yeganeh – you’ve been at the State Department all week – what – are there any glimmers of diplomatic progress at this point? And you’ve been following not only Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but also Joseph Yun, a U.S. diplomat who’s trying to do backchannel talks, where there seems to be a little activity.
YEGANEH TORBATI: Right, so we learned today through the Associated Press that Joseph Yun has been speaking to the third-highest-ranking official – North Korean official at the U.N. embassy in New York. But, you know, those talks sort of started or were really centered around the return of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was imprisoned in North Korea and sadly died after his return to the United States, and we learned that those contacts have continued. That’s the only channel right now, as far as we know, of talks between the U.S. and North Korea. The diplomatic engagement that the U.S. is really engaged on, and Secretary Tillerson is focused on as well as Ambassador Haley, is around North Korea’s trading partners, around U.S. allies and partners in the region, to really try to get them to up the pressure on North Korea, try to cut off any remaining trade, especially any illicit trade that’s explicitly banned by U.N. resolutions. And, you know, the focus of the – of the diplomatic push has not really been on opening talks with North Korea as of yet, it’s really more trying to increase that pressure first.
MR. COSTA: And China came to the table and worked with the United States last week on having a new round of sanctions, and the president said there may be some more sanctions on Friday in the works. Is there anything you can share about that, what’s next on the sanctions horizon?
MS. TORBATI: Right, so this was a really important diplomatic win for the Trump administration. I mean, they got a 15 to zero vote for tough new sanctions, really the toughest that have existed to date, on North Korea. The key is going to really be in the implementation, and that is very much down to China, which is North Korea’s primary trading partner. Now, if the Chinese entities and banks and companies don’t enforce those sanctions and don’t abide by them, then it’s up to the Chinese government to shut that down. And if that doesn’t happen, the next step is what are so-called secondary sanctions, so the United States sanctioning Chinese entities. And that’s something that the U.S. really has not done on a large scale up to now.
MR. COSTA: So the military is on pause but ready, the State Department is engaged in talks, but the world is on edge. And on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the president’s provocative warnings, his tough talk to North Korea, saying “I believe that – am firmly convinced that an escalation of rhetoric will not contribute to a solution of this conflict.” She said, “I do not see a military solution to this conflict.” As expected, the president remained defiant when asked about his critics.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) My critics are only saying that because it’s me. If somebody else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they’d say what a great statement, what a wonderful statement. We have tens of millions of people in this country that are so happy with what I’m saying because they’re saying finally we have a president that’s sticking up for our nation – and, frankly, sticking up for our friends and our allies.
MR. COSTA: Michael, I’m reading your TIME Magazine cover story on General John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff. And I was thinking about this story when I listened to Angela Merkel’s comments because the world and so many Republicans and Democrats are wondering, can this new chief of staff, who’s with the president in New Jersey, be a force of stability inside of the room as the president navigates all of these issues?
MICHAEL DUFFY: Well, if you were judging by the last 48 hours you might quickly conclude no. But it’s important to remember that Kelly, who has done about everything you can do in the United States Marine Corps and is very close with the secretary of state and the secretary of defense and the national security advisor, and was nudged by those men, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to take this job after he turned it down twice directly to Trump, and took a third time when Trump asked him. Again, partly did it because, as they said to him, we need you to do this for the good of the country.
We need a White House that is ready to be – ready to deal with an international crisis, because it’s pretty obvious that it hasn’t been and isn’t. And so what I think the question you might ask is, you know, what really is someone like Kelly capable of. And you can’t fix Trump the way you fix a car or you fix a tire. But what you can do maybe – and I think this is what a chief of staff would say – is you can maybe earn his trust enough so that you can get the rest of the operations – and it’s an operation at the White House – ready, should a crisis develop.
I’ll say one other thing. I think you kind of gave away the puzzle there, the key to the whole week, when you said: A lot of people really like what I’m saying. And I think you look at Trump’s comments this week about North Korea, which were kind of unprovoked, you could – you could argue that this is, to some extent, an effort by him not just to worry about the Korean peninsula, but very much to mind his own political standing back home.
He’s had a tough couple of weeks in the polls. He tends to worry about his base when it begins to slip. And it’s been – it had slipped until Wednesday when he, you know, cranked this stuff up. But you can never – when he starts going off down a road like this, you just have to remember that he’s always mindful of what that base is thinking and doing. And I think that’s partly to explain here.
MR. COSTA: Alexis, that speculation from Michael really raises the question about all these mixed messages we’ve seen from the White House this week. Because as Michael said, we’ve seen this tough talk, we’ve heard it from the president, but we’ve also seen the diplomatic side of the administration have an entirely different tack. So what is the strategy coming out of Bedminster? You’ve been talking to your sources there.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: It’s a really great question because it has not – and by the end of the week, seemed even more muddled. So it didn’t actually clean up. It actually got more confused. So if we wanted to pay attention to those who are expert in this and we listen to them carefully – and that would be the secretary of state or the Pentagon chief – you can hear the emphasis on diplomacy, diplomacy, and let’s talk about the sanctions, and the president’s going to call President Xi of China on Friday night, and this discussion of talks. That is almost like an asterisk, though, in what the president is describing.
And as Michael very astutely, I think, points out, for him a lot of this is the personal power of the commander in chief and trying to display the might and the power of the United States to the rest of the world. In the same breath, he’s also going back to the campaign. I’m doing something that these three previous presidents didn’t do. I’m going to clean up this mess. We’re going to fix this. He’s not saying, though, that the military option is a solution. He’s not arguing that. He didn’t argue that by the end of the week. But he is mixing up what the United States would use as a trigger to have to rely on the military option. And you can see him talking about either the threat or the overt threat or the – you know, the actual action. And so, I think it’s a mix of something very personal for him about power, and also this idea that this is a threat in the world that he wants to clean up.
MS. YOUSSEF: You know, Alexis, as you and Michael talk it has me wondering, how many of these comments then were directed at China and trying to get China to intervene. And how much of it was directed at a – at a domestic U.S. audience? Because from a national security perspective, one assumes that one of the reasons these things re being said are to say to China: If you don’t do something, we will threaten the one thing you value most – stability – and come into the region in some capacity. But to hear you guys talk, there’s a real domestic element that I’m curious –
MR. COSTA: Well, I wonder, though, Yeganeh, about that question. If this is really about signaling to China to get involved, what is the relationship right now between Pyongyang and Beijing when it comes to diplomatic relations, when it comes to China stepping up?
MS. TORBATI: Right. I think Pyongyang is sort of a pain the neck for the Chinese. They don’t – you know, I don’t think they actually support a nuclear program or want the North Koreans to have a nuclear program. But for them, the real strategic threat is the United States. They don’t view the North Koreans as a strategic threat to them. And the United States goal throughout, you know, Secretary Tillerson’s diplomacy and even before that sort of towards the end of the Obama administration, was to get the Chinese to view the North Korean threat as more serious. They’re – you know, what U.S. officials would say is that the Chinese tolerance for North Korean misbehavior is quite a lot more than the U.S. tolerance. And so that’s sort of the gap that the U.S. has been trying to close for a while.
MS. SIMENDINGER: We should add too that the president has been almost unbelievably public about his thinking about China. He said in public: Let’s talk about trade. I’ll make – we’ll make a better deal. And he has said that again and again and again. And China has turned a deaf ear to this idea that this is a negotiating point, right? But one thing that did emerge by the end of the week was China seemed to be saying that they wanted to be neutral, which was in some ways interpreted as a signal to North Korea. I don’t know if you agree with that.
MS. TORBATI: Well, and they – and they signed onto these sanctions. I mean, that is a big win and that’s an indication that China’s willing to do more. But again, we have to see what the enforcement of that sanctions is actually going to be.
MR. DUFFY: And we should keep one thing about sanctions in mind, which is that they take a long time. And you could live through this week of tweets and statements and think: We’re going to be at war by Sunday. And the plain fact of the matter is I think we all know we’re not, and probably not ever. But the sanctions deal takes months. In Iran, it took years. So if you believe the sanctions piece – which I’m – is certainly a perfectly fine track – that’s a much longer squeeze game. It’s not certainly about the weekend.
MS. YOUSSEF: But could I just add that also this whole idea is based on the supposition that Chinese intervention will reduce the crisis. There’s no guarantee of that, because part of those sanctions would involve them taking an economic hit themselves for a threat that they don’t see in the same way as the United States.
MR. DUFFY: I would only just say one more thing, which is that I think one of the things that’s hard for everyone in the country, and even as journalists and diplomats and people at the Pentagon who are talking about diplomacy, is that we don’t hear this kind of rhetoric from presidents, because in the game of diplomacy you don’t talk this way. You talk to China, you whisper to them. You know, and I don’t know what – you know, how you speak to the North Koreans. You can’t. But it’s certainly not probably this way.
So people are really unaccustomed and surprised and shocked and scared to hear this kind of language from a president. It may be how he negotiates or how he talks in all his – you know, however he does stuff. But it’s still shocking and scary to people. But that doesn’t mean that we’re heading down a road to no return.
MR. COSTA: But you got to wonder, if the way the president speaks now on North Korea is part of a pattern, if it’s typical Trump. It’s hard to read President Trump at times. He has such militaristic language, but he’s shown flashes of noninterventionism in the past. And think about almost more than a decade, when the president did a lot of saber rattling. This was in 1999. Donald Trump, New York businessman and future reality TV star, had a different approach to dealing with North Korea. Here’s what he told the late Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet The Press when he asked: How would you deal with a nuclear North Korea?
DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’d negotiate. I would negotiate like crazy. And I’d make sure that we tried to get the best deal possible. The biggest problem this world has is nuclear proliferation. And we have a country out there, North Korea, which is sort of whacko, which is not a dumb – not a bunch of dummies. And they are going out and they are developing nuclear weapons. And they’re not doing it because they’re having fun doing it. They’re doing it for a reason.
MR. COSTA: Nancy, from 1999 to right now in 2017, what has actually changed with the nuclear threat from North Korea? We have reports of a miniaturized weapon. And also, what is the U.S. nuclear arsenal at this point? The president has claimed – many say incorrectly – that he has revolutionized the nuclear arsenal. So it seems like we’ve been dealing with the same questions for so long, but the nuclear state of play may have changed.
MS. YOUSSEF: That’s right, because now we’re talking about a miniaturized weapon. And the first time you have the intelligence community sort of coming down with a consensus on that. Now, arguably, that’s an opportunity to negotiate because before all the talks were focused on not getting to this point. Now that they’re here, arguably in a rudimentary nuclear program, one could argue this is an opportunity to start talks about how to mitigate that threat.
To your question on the nuclear posture of the United States, there’s a review going on right now. It began in April. The president claimed that he’d revolutionized the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That, in fact, hasn’t happened because that review has to be completed first. And it’s expected to be maybe as late as the end of this year. And only then can you start to reexamine the U.S. nuclear program. And that can take years. In fact, some of the changes we’re seeing now are based on the 2010 nuclear posture review.
MR. COSTA: Yeganeh, you have to wonder, why can’t the United States and its allies just accept a nuclear-armed North Korea? Is that part of the options on the table right now for the Trump administration?
MS. TORBATI: It’s not something that anybody is considering seriously. I mean, you could argue that if you’re a sober-minded analyst outside of the U.S. government, that you kind of look at the situation and you realize that the North Koreans are far too far along in their quest for a nuclear weapons program to give it up at this point. They view it as essential to their survival, essential to the continuation of the regime and to the government. But it’s not something that the U.S. government, either under the Obama administration or under this administration, is prepared to accept, simply because of the verbal threats, for instance, that the – that the North Korean government has posed to the United States.
MR. DUFFY: The wacky instability of the Kim regime, going back three generations. That’s the other reason. So this is not a group of people that is regarded as stable, so –
MR. COSTA: But they also may have some strategy, Michael. You think about –
MR. DUFFY: Oh, they always act in their own interest, and that’s where we – I think that’s what you’re implying. Yeah, they – and several times they have walked this situation up to the brink: in 1994, when they did pull Americans out of South Korea and they did move lots more antiaircraft batteries into South – there was a – and the shelves of stores in South Korea in 1994, when Bill Clinton sent Jimmy Carter, were cleaned out. That was felt like much more a brinksmanship moment.
MR. COSTA: And there’s a big difference, Michael, between saying you’re going to target Guam, if you’re North Korea, versus Los Angeles or Chicago.
MR. DUFFY: I don’t want to say that it’s not an important target, but there are higher-value targets. So that was another indication that perhaps this was – there was a little shadowboxing going on here.
MS. YOUSSEF: Well, can I just add, they also left themselves wiggle room because in that statement, even though they gave the date, practically the time, and how many seconds it would take to hit Guam, they also said we had to check with our army, we had to check with Kim Jong-un before something would be launched. So they left themselves some wiggle room.
MR. DUFFY: And the other great big difference between today and the time of the Meet The Press interview 10, 12 years ago was that this man now has a base in the Republican Party that likes to hear him talk this way.
MR. COSTA: Alexis, you’ve covered so many presidents. And I was reading Theodore Rex today, by Edmund Morris, looking at the long history of the United States, and Korea has long had hostility to the United States and Japan, and this has been an issue for more than a century if you look back at the history books. THE crisis now for President Trump.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, and it certainly was a feature of the presidential election discussion. It certainly was in the memories of those who remember the Korean War of the 1950s. And for a 71-year-old president, it’s part of what he remembers about American history, too.
MR. COSTA: We’ll have to leave it there. The North Korea crisis, or perhaps, Michael, a crisis that’s being overblown from your perspective. Thanks so much. Great to have you here Nancy, Alexis, Yeganeh, Michael Duffy. And thanks, everybody, for joining us tonight.
We have to leave you a few minutes early to give you an opportunity to support your local PBS station that, in turn, supports us. So stay tuned. And our conversation will continue online, as ever, on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll tell you about a mysterious situation in Cuba that has caused hearing loss for some American diplomats. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy your weekend.