The Memo: Could Trump’s hard line work on North Korea?

The Memo: Could Trump’s hard line work on North Korea?
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President TrumpDonald TrumpMcCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Bennie Thompson not ruling out subpoenaing Trump MORE’s allies are robustly defending his rhetoric on North Korea, despite the criticism his words have drawn from other quarters.

The administration’s view is that Trump’s hard line had paid dividends even before he threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury” on Tuesday. Supporters argue it may continue to do so, in part by ratcheting up pressure on China to rein in its ally.

The Trump camp highlights last weekend’s unanimous vote by the United Nations Security Council, in which China and Russia joined the United States and others in imposing the most arduous sanctions yet on North Korea. 

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyUS rejoins UN Human Rights Council, reversing Trump exit Smarkets betting site makes Trump favorite in 2024 Nikki Haley gets lifetime post on Clemson Board of Trustees MORE, described those sanctions as “a gut punch to North Korea” during a Fox News interview on Monday.

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Pyongyang intensified the war of words on Wednesday, however. According to The Associated Press, the North Korean military called Trump's threat a "load of nonsense" and said that "only absolute force" would work on Trump. 

But Walid Phares, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, argued that “what most impresses the North Korean regime politically is a united U.N. Security Council position and joint actions by the international community to isolate Pyongyang. The last [U.N.] resolution … against North Korea is the kind of development that would push the dictatorship to slow down its activities.”

Phares added that “a second deterrent is when China takes measures from its side, because it signals that the only real lifeline for North Korea's economy could be cut.”

On Wednesday, amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and a North Korean threat against Guam, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE offered a solid endorsement of Trump’s approach.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson told reporters.

Tillerson described the administration’s overall strategy as a "pressure campaign,” a phrase that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert repeated during a media briefing later in the day.

The basic thrust of that campaign, in the minds of Team Trump, is to pressure China by raising the specter of instability in the region unless North Korea curbs its nuclear program. The prospect of such instability would concern China because it would call its No. 1 goal — maintaining its economic expansion — into question.

Even some Republicans who have at times been critical of Trump seemed to endorse that approach.

“China should have two options,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter MORE (R-S.C.) told "CBS This Morning” on Wednesday. “Deal with the nut job in your backyard or realize there will be a war in your backyard.”

Independent experts who are broadly sympathetic to Trump’s approach argue that his rhetoric provides an important measure of clarity — even as critics worry that it is raising the temperature to a dangerous level.

“No matter who you are, you understand the president means business in North Korea,” said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank established by former President Richard Nixon. “The dictator in Pyongyang knows he means business as well. There is no mistaking what he is talking about here.”

Others noted that the more modulated approaches favored by other recent presidents have not proven successful.

Then-President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonAppeals court allows Texas abortion law to stand Bill Clinton hospitalized with sepsis Democrats explained: Mandaters gonna mandate MORE in 1994 concluded a deal that pledged $4 billion in energy aid to North Korea in return for a promise to slow and eventually dismantle its nuclear program. During President Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House, he adopted an approach known as “strategic patience.”

Despite these efforts, and others by former President George W. Bush’s administration, Pyongyang has carried out five nuclear tests since 2006. Last month alone, it twice tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

Earlier this week, a leaked U.S. intelligence assessment suggested that North Korea had achieved “miniaturization” — the process by which nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by ICBMs are made.

“The professional military believe we’re at a turning point,” conservative broadcaster Hugh Hewitt said, citing recent remarks by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Army chief of staff Mark Milley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. 

McMaster told Hewitt on his MSNBC show on Saturday that a situation in which North Korea could menace the United States with a nuclear weapon was “intolerable from the president’s perspective.”

Trump, Hewitt told The Hill, “used very blunt and provocative language, which is very different from the language used by President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcAuliffe holds slim lead over Youngkin in Fox News poll Biden's Supreme Court reform study panel notes 'considerable' risks to court expansion Congress is hell-bent on a spooky spending spree  MORE, Bush or Clinton. But their language didn’t accomplish anything.”

There are plenty of people who fear that Trump’s language could accomplish all the wrong things, however.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Biden: We will fix nation's problems Left doubles down on aggressive strategy MORE (I-Vt.) described the president’s remarks as “bombastic” on Wednesday, the same word that Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinJane Fonda to push for end to offshore oil drilling in California Overnight Health Care — Presented by The National Council on Mental Wellbeing — Merck asks FDA to authorize five-day COVID-19 treatment Bannon's subpoena snub sets up big decision for Biden DOJ MORE (D-Calif.) used the previous day. 

Republican Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Biden-Harris train wreck may have its savior: 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump Kelly raises million in third quarter Legislative limbo — how low can they go? MORE (Ariz.) told a radio station in Arizona Tuesday that Trump appeared to be making threats that he could not follow through on and was increasing the chances of a “serious confrontation” by doing so.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez went further Wednesday, attacking Trump for “recklessly live-tweeting threats of nuclear war from his private golf course.”

Others took a more nuanced view. Former Ambassador Christopher Hill said that Trump’s approach was “obviously not presidential and very concerning coming so soon after [the] appointment of an adult as chief of staff” — a reference to John Kelly, who has recently replaced Reince Priebus in the White House.

Hill, who served as ambassador to South Korea under Bush and has participated in North Korea nuclear negotiations, added that the “focus needs to be on North Koreans,” not Trump’s tone.

Communicating via text while traveling in Eastern Europe, Hill emphasized that the “basic problem is that the [North Koreans] won’t give up nukes. We need to work with — not outsource to — Chinese and reassure allies South Korea and Japan.”

But there is no sign of the administration backing down from its position.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default Pentagon chiefs say debt default could risk national security MORE issued another warning to North Korea on Wednesday.

Pyongyang, he said, “should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

Jonathan Easley contributed.