They’ve been worried about President Donald Trump going off script for months. And now members of Congress are worried that his blunt and provocative warning to North Korea could lead to war.
Trump, using what a White House official described as his own words during impromptu remarks, threatened he would unleash “fire and fury” on the rogue nation if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attacked the United States. He later followed it up with a tweet about America’s stronger and more powerful nuclear arsenal.
“His bombastic rhetoric really inflamed a very…dangerous situation,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. said in an interview. “Kim Jong Un is unpredictable and then we have a very unpredictable bellicose president. The two is a very dangerous mixture.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said in an interview that a constituent at a luncheon told him she was rattled by Trump's talk. “She was scared by the language being used by the president of our country,” Cleaver said. “It is not helpful. We don't need to be stirring up anxiety.”
It’s not just Democrats who are alarmed. Across the nation, lawmakers on a month-long recess were surprised by Trump’s reaction to news reports that Pyongyang had successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead and was considering a plan to fire missiles at Guam. Even some fellow Republicans criticized the president’s language.
“It’s kind of the classic Trump in that he overstates things,” Sen. John McCain, R-Az. told Arizona radio station KTAR.
No one should think that a conflict with North Korea will be a quick little glorious war, or be tempted by false hopes that North Korea’s nuclear program can be destroyed with a single antiseptic surgical strike
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
McCain said he would prefer that Trump take former President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly, but carry a big stick. Such warnings, he said, are better delivered in private. Other presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, he said “would have picked up the phone and called the Chinese and said ‘I’m dead serious.’”
Trump’s remarks come as Americans increasingly see North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as a top threat. A survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found North Korea’s nuclear program drew the largest spike of any potential threat facing the United States over the past year. Three-quarters of Americans — or 75 percent — place North Korea’s nuclear program among the top threats, up 15 percentage points since 2016.
Many lawmakers called on Trump to pursue diplomacy, working with other nations including Russia and China, to enforce new United Nations sanctions against North Korea. But they could do little if he decided to use military force.
Lawmakers in both parties said after he launched missiles in Syria, Trump needed to go before Congress to seek war powers if he intended further U.S. military action in the country. But issuing such an authorization has been a challenge for years between the White House and Congress.
Congress is now considering new authorization for action against terror groups, although the Trump administration last week told members that it has sufficient legal authority to use military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria based on a 2001 law that was approved shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We need fewer fiery words and bombastic tweets from the president and his cable TV surrogates, and more effort to work with our international partners to expand missile defense and deterrence and put forward a strategy to roll back North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But some Republicans defended Trump’s language.
“This isn’t about Donald Trump. It's about North Korea,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho said in an interview. “Donald Trump is notorious for saying exactly what's on his mind and he did and the people in Pyongyang need to listen to it very carefully.”
Risch said people need to understand that Trump is a “different chief executive.”
“When he says that he's not going to allow North Korea to deliver a nuclear weapon ... he means it,” Risch said. “He's pulled the trigger twice since he's been in office.”
This is how North Korea talks so why not give it a shot to say, ‘you are going to bury the United States in fire and fury? Hey, we got some fire and fury for you, too, if you want to play that game,
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-IL. on CNN
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday sought to allay fears of a military confrontation, saying the threat from North Korea had not changed.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night,” he told reporters aboard his aircraft as he traveled to Guam.
Lindsay Wise contributed reporting.