What is a media-savvy U.S. president to do about the early but cautious calls for his ouster, especially if Democrats take control of Congress this fall? Quite simply, he should go abroad.
Right about now, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Intelligence Committee to review impeachment investigation report Monday Comedian Rosanne Barr to speak at Trumpettes’ Gala at Mar-A-Lago Israeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project MORE should make foreign affairs his administration’s top priority, knowing that when it comes to domestic matters his agenda has stalled, at least for the moment. A foreign affairs win would change the narrative, likely with Trump’s supporters and detractors alike.
ADVERTISEMENTHistory reminds us that it’s what a few past presidents did, including at least one who launched a military strike in the midst of political turmoil.
Trump’s latest headline-making tweet, announcing that he canceled a fourth visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIsraeli, Palestinian business leaders seek Trump boost for investment project Pelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention Ex-GOP lawmaker: Former colleagues privately say they’re ‘disgusted and exhausted’ by Trump MORE, might be evidence that the president intends to spice up things with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to try to make the news media and American public forget about his legal troubles.
As Gregory Korte of USA Today notes, President Nixon, with the Watergate scandal swirling around him, visited 10 nations before he quit the presidency in 1974. President Reagan held an important meeting with Pope John Paul II while the Iran-Contra affair dominated the news.
And think back nearly 20 years to President Clinton’s four-day bombing campaign against Afghanistan and Sudan — right in the thick of his impeachment proceedings. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott declared, “The timing and the policy are subject to question.”
Clinton was accused of “wagging the dog,” or emulating a popular movie at the time in which a U.S. president used a military conflict to distract the American people. Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a moderate Republican who served in the Clinton administration, in 2004 testimony defended the action, explaining that “under no circumstances did President Clinton ever call upon the military and use that military in order to serve a political purpose.”
Unfortunately for us today, North Korea might be a willing accomplice in such a scenario, if events continue trending in a negative direction.
In a recent piece in Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the North accused the Trump administration of staging military drills in preparation for a possible invasion if talks between the two countries were to fail. The article — citing a South Korean radio report stating that American “special units” had been moved to the Philippines — claimed that this was some sort of training to simulate “infiltration into Pyongyang.” There is even an accusation that a U.S. Navy submarine moved special forces from Okinawa, Japan, to South Korea recently, supposedly more evidence of America’s hostile intent.
“We cannot but take a serious note of the double-dealing attitudes of the U.S. as it is busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face,” North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper said after President Trump called off Pompeo’s visit.
Such accusations, strange as they are, seem to be a backslide toward pre-summit North Korean propaganda of half-baked, slightly crazy accusations. In years past, Washington would provide little to no response to such statements. However, keeping in mind Trump’s 2017 responses to Kim’s threat to test-fire missiles near Guam — when Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” and nicknamed the North Korean dictator “Little Rocket Man” — one could easily see the current situation escalate.
And considering how the media gobbled up every insult then, if Trump launched a verbal war of words against North Korea again, the calls for his impeachment would suddenly move to the B or C block of TV news shows. The possibility of nuclear war tends to push all else aside.
The danger, of course, is that a war of words, in the media and online, easily could spiral out of control. Imagine a scenario in which Kim makes a specific threat, perhaps to test missiles near Hawaii. Trump responds, threatening “a test of my own near your country — and SOON!” Then, America and South Korea restart their military exercises, to remind Kim of U.S. military might, especially its long-range bombers.
But if one of those bombers were to veer too close to the Korean border and be fired upon by a North Korean soldier protecting his anti-aircraft missile site, Trump would face the toughest decision of his presidency.
Sure, with such a scenario that begins innocently enough, President Trump might succeed in distracting the public — but the cost might be astronomical. And then, of course, impeachment would be the least of his worries.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.
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