Foreign Policy

What Did Trump Say? What Did He Mean?

He's surely guilty of hyperbolic bluster, but what he's doing is far more important than how he says it.

Thomas Gallatin · Jun. 14, 2018

As that old adage states, “Actions speak louder than words.” But the truth is that words can obscure actions, especially when those words lack context. Such has often been the case with President Donald Trump. There is no question that Trump is prone to bloviating and hyperbole. He uses these verbal techniques to convey either his emotion or his understanding of the significance of an issue. And while there’s much to criticize in what he has said, as has been previously observed, if one genuinely desires to understand and interpret Trump, then take what he says seriously but not literally. Admittedly, this is not always easy to do.

Two of Trump’s recent comments provide a teachable moment. First, in an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier on Air Force One following the Singapore summit, Baier questioned Trump’s complimentary comments on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, noting that Kim “has done some really bad things.” Trump responded, “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”

Was Trump suggesting that the horrendous human rights abuses perpetrated by Kim’s brutal regime against his own people are simply to be overlooked? That’s exactly the perspective the mainstream media has taken. But in context, what was Trump trying to accomplish? Put another way, how does needlessly offending an admittedly bad guy — which everyone, Trump included, recognizes is the case — do anything to build diplomatic trust and common ground? Trump’s previous “stick” approach pushed Kim to the negotiation table; now he’s offering a “carrot.” Remember, Trump’s primary objective here is North Korean denuclearization, preferably through diplomatic means rather than military force. Trump is not interested here in merely saying the right things; he’s focused on getting the deal done.

The second example felt eerily similar to George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” statement. After arriving back in the U.S., Trump triumphantly declared, “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” He then added, “Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer — sleep well tonight!”

In fairness, there’s plenty to legitimately criticize in this statement, as North Korea is still far from being denuclearized and still remains a significant threat. And while the Singapore summit was indeed a good first step, as another adage warns, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Clearly, Trump is upbeat about the progress thus far with North Korea, and he is communicating his confidence that things are going in the right direction. Secondly, he may be responding to all the negative second-guessing and hand-wringing expressed by much of the MSM (and plenty of conservative media) following the summit. As leader of the free world, Trump desires for Americans to feel optimistic about the future, and that appears to be the heart of his message here. Does anyone not believe that Trump wouldn’t quickly swivel and blast Kim if he begins acting in bad faith?

Finally, despite all the MSM bluster over Trump’s historic summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a bottom-line summary: “Let me assure you that the ‘complete’ [denuclearization] encompasses ‘verifiable’ in the minds of everyone concerned. I am confident that [Kim] understands what we’re prepared to do, a handful of things we’re likely not prepared to do. I am equally confident they understand that there will be in-depth verification. We’re hopeful that we can achieve that in the next two and a half years, something like that. We’re hopeful we get it done. There’s a lot of work left to do.”

In short, Trump is surely guilty of hyperbolic bluster, but what he’s doing is far more important than how he says it.


Update 6/15: Asked why he offered such effusive praise to a murderous dictator, Trump answered, “You know why? Because I don’t want to see a nuclear weapon destroy you and your family.” That about sums it up.

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