Trump’s Rhetoric Goes Nuclear

As part of its internship program, Navigator asks its interns to write a blog post about the intersection of communications and an area of personal interest. This week, political junkie Max Ledger.

Words matter. Especially when they are expressed by the President of the United States.

Last week, U.S. intelligence revealed that North Korea has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead. President Trump responded by issuing a threat, suggesting that the U.S. military would unleash “fire and fury” against the rogue state if it continues to threaten the U.S. He added that the U.S. is “locked and loaded.” North Korea, on the other hand, called Trump’s threats “a load of nonsense”. Trump then took to Twitter:

“Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”

It goes without saying that Trump is known for his unscripted extemporaneous comments. Both his campaign and his presidency have been littered with examples. One need only scroll through his Twitter feed to find a slew of careless and unscripted commentary.  Trump’s declaration that he was going to “bomb the s**t out of [Isis]” was not the end product of a meticulously crafted communications strategy.

Trump is less known, however, for carefully calculated statements aimed at influencing the decisions of opponents, both domestically and on the international stage. Trump’s rhetoric, to a certain extent, has become normalized. It is no longer surprising to hear the President of the free world threatening nuclear war. Many dismiss these statements as “typical Trumpisms” which are unlikely to be part of a broader strategy.

But is it possible that Trump’s most recent message to North Korea—despite its appearance as a typical Trumpism—was in fact a chess maneuver? Perhaps Trump’s blunt and hyper-aggressive rhetoric was a calculated move to communicate a tough message, not only to North Korea, but also to China.

The Trump White House may well have concluded that civil discussion and polite phone calls to China asking them to take action against North Korea were not having the desired outcome. Seeing China drag its feet on trade sanctions, the U.S. government may have decided to intentionally ramp up the rhetoric. The result being not only to deter Kim Jong-un, but also to raise China’s concerns about its own security. After all, the war currently being vociferously threatened would be on China’s doorstep.

Beyond the geopolitical outcome, what do we learn about communications strategies from the path Trump took to get here? One perspective is that Trump just got lucky—his spontaneous and potentially dangerous rhetoric didn’t provoke war in the region, but rather a diplomatic response from China’s Xi Jinping.

But it may be that the Trump team deployed a carefully crafted strategy under the guise of “just another outburst.” It is possible that Trump’s rhetoric was designed to put pressure on China to enforce sanctions against North Korea. While the “fire and fury” comment was in response to a question, the words themselves (like “locked and loaded”) have an air of pre-selection to them. Their alliterative ring does not sound like Trump speaking off-the-cuff.

It might even have been the case that the contradictory statements made by Trump’s advisors Rex Tillerson and James Mattis were part of a scripted plan to sow confusion and at the same time signal openness to a diplomatic solution without diluting the President’s threat.

When asked by the media for clarification of his North Korea threats, President Trump responded by saying “what I said is what I mean” and “I think you know that I mean”.  But of course, no one really knew what he meant.  Sometimes, a well-crafted communications strategy involves a complex multi-layered message delivered simultaneously to multiple audiences, intended to be read differently by different audiences. And sometimes a good communications strategy involves an element of misdirection – like apparently speaking to North Korea when actually speaking to China.

Whether it was an intentional strategy, or yet another emotional outburst from the President, it appears, for the moment, to have achieved a desirable result. China announced Monday that it would implement a ban on imports of North Korean iron ore, iron, lead and coal and North Korea has, at least temporarily, backed away from its threat to attack Guam.

Forcing China to step up and bear some of the burden of disciplining North Korea is a diplomatic coup for the U.S., and could bode well for greater stability in the region. CNBC predicted that what many viewed initially as a “massive fumble” by the Trump administration could easily become its “biggest triumph of the year”.

If any of this was actually the case – and leaving aside the idiocy of threatening nuclear war – it could be in fact be an effective, if unconventional communications strategy. But that probably gives this administration too much credit.