A new poll from CBS News shows that 61 percent of Americans are “uneasy” about President Trump’s ability to handle the North Korea crisis. Even among Republicans, more than 1 in 5 say they are uneasy. “Nearly three-quarters of Americans [72 percent] are uneasy about the possibility of conflict with North Korea. … A majority think North Korea is using its missile program to try to gain power and influence, rather than outright planning a nuclear strike on the U.S. Nevertheless, that unease remains.”
That poll was taken before the latest disturbing news about North Korea’s technological prowess. The Post reports:
“North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment.
“The new analysis completed last month by the Defense Intelligence Agency comes on the heels of another intelligence assessment that sharply raises the official estimate for the total number of bombs in the communist country’s atomic arsenal. The U.S. calculated last month that up to 60 nuclear weapons are now controlled by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Some independent experts believe the number of bombs is much smaller.”
On one hand, the administration racked up an unusual win in the United Nations, getting Russia and China to go along with a tough sanctions package. However, what the public sees from North Korea is uninterrupted progress on nukes (with no assurance that sanctions will influence its behavior), and from the administration, not deft international diplomacy, but over-the-top and potentially dangerous rhetoric.
Consider what occurred Tuesday. The Hill recapped:
“U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley lashed out at leaks of classified information in a Fox News story Tuesday morning on North Korean missiles, saying it is “incredibly dangerous” that it was reported, even after President Trump tweeted out the story.
“The story used anonymous sources to report that North Korea loaded anti-ship missiles onto a patrol boat near the coast, something that Haley refused to confirm or comment on because it is ‘classified information.’
“Her comments on ‘Fox & Friends’ bashing the spread of classified information come after Trump retweeted the article that uses anonymous sources, though it is not clear whether she knew he shared the story.”
Americans might feel a whole lot more comfortable if Haley were president. Wasn’t White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly supposed to curb this kind of erratic, hypocritical (remember the war on leaks) and undisciplined conduct? Trump seems compelled to underscore his lack of calm, deliberate judgment. Even worse, he still employs and sends out unqualified aides who behave in ways designed to raise tensions and provoke North Korea. On Fox Business Network, White House adviser Sebastian Gorka declared, “[North Korea] is a Lilliputian nation, if you compare it to our capabilities. So this is bluster. This is nothing else except blackmail, and we do not give in to blackmail, and North Korea and the head of the North Korea Stalinist regime should not test this president.”
Kelly should put an end to this. Gorka has no business discussing North Korea on air. (Remember he apparently lacks a security clearance and was reportedly supposed to be leaving the White House, where he has acted as a gadfly and idol for the alt-right.) On matters as sensitive as North Korea, only the actual national security team (the secretaries of state and defense as well as the national security adviser) should be speaking out. Otherwise, this conveys a recklessness and lack of sobriety that, in the context of North Korea, are frightening.
The North Korea problem has vexed multiple presidents. Trump’s team perhaps isn’t getting the credit it deserves (about which the president whimpers) because it is overshadowed by over-the-top rhetoric that may provoke Pyongyang and unsettle the American people. In the past, Americans at least had the comfort of knowing that their own side in the conflict was measured, serious and in control. They should be excused for concluding that this is no longer the case.
Jennifer Rubin is a Washington Post columnist.