WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s tweet taunting North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un over the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal raised alarms on Wednesday about the prospect of the nation stumbling into catastrophic war with a young, unpredictable ruler whose actions and decision-making are not fully understood by America’s intelligence community.
The tweet, in which Trump boasted that U.S. nuclear capabilities are “much bigger” and “more powerful” than North Korea’s, even startled some officials at the White House.
“Every war in history was an accident. You just don’t know what’s going to send (Trump) over the edge,” one administration insider told Axios.
But Republican senators appeared unfazed, dodging questions about Trump’s Twitter taunts ― a strategy they have perfected to an art form during the president’s first year in office.
“I’m going to vote,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said tersely, before walking into an elevator at the Capitol.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a frequent critic of the president, laughed off the query about Trump’s tweet and said he was withholding comment. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said it was simply “Trump being Trump.” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) chuckled when asked if he was concerned about the prospect of an accidental nuclear war.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a libertarian-leaning critic of military engagements abroad, seemed to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.
“I think it’s always been something that’s been unspoken and sometimes spoken about quietly that there is a great deterrence in having a vast nuclear arsenal,” Paul told HuffPost. “And so I think the fact that countries know that, that there is a deterrent effect to having a vast nuclear arsenal. It hasn’t been done by tweet before. But it’s definitely been done and known and spoken of in diplomatic channels for decades.”
At least a few GOP senators were more pointed in their reactions.
Asked whether he thought it was appropriate for the president to be taunting an unstable man with nuclear weapons, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said he believed “we should speak softly and carry a big stick.” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said he didn’t think Trump’s tweet “helps.”
Trump has repeatedly engaged in verbal skirmishes with North Korean officials in recent months. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, and called its leader “Rocket Man.” The pariah state’s ministry fired back, calling Trump a “mentally deranged dotard.”
The latest spat between the two men, however, appeared to escalate matters. Trump was responding to Kim who, in a New Year’s address to his nation, said, “The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk.” Trump in his tweet noted that he also has a “nuclear button,” adding that “and my button works.”
President Trump’s foreign policy by tweet is doing serious damage to the country. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Democrats excoriated Trump, calling his tweet dangerous and unbecoming of a president.
“President Trump’s foreign policy by tweet is doing serious damage to the country,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. Schumer urged his Republican colleagues to speak out or else be complicit in “the degradation of the presidency.”
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the tweet “embarrassing and counterproductive.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Washington Wednesday for the swearing-in of Alabama’s newest senator, Democrat Doug Jones, chided Trump for being “cavalier,” and said his tweet showed “poor judgment.”
According to Politico, diplomats who have met with Trump have used words such as “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous” to describe him. Former U.N. chiefs Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon also have warned about the increased chance of an accidental nuclear war.
“One miscalculation, one mistake and we are all victims,” Annan said in a December interview, cautioning that “it may not be a deliberate decision to start a nuclear war.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday discounted the concerns about Trump’s verbal attacks on North Korea.
“I think the president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea,” Sanders said at the daily White House press briefing.
While saying that she didn’t think “it’s taunting to stand up for the people of this country,” she also disputed that Trump was goading North Korea by boasting about the U.S. having a larger nuclear arsenal and a button with which to launch the weapons.
“It’s not a taunt; I think it’s just a fact,” she said.