Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson on the growing nuclear threat of North Korea

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Tillerson downplays North Korean threat as Trump touts U.S. nuclear arsenal

The Trump administration's mix messaging adds uncertainty amid tensions with North Korea.


Andrew Couts


Posted on Aug 9, 2017   Updated on May 22, 2021, 9:11 pm CDT

With the stench of nuclear annihilation wafting through the air, President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued conflicting statements regarding the threat of a North Korean strike, adding toxic uncertainty amid escalated tensions between the United States and North Korea.

In an attempt at de-escalation, Tillerson told reporters Wednesday morning, “I do not believe that there is any imminent threat” from North Korea. “Americans should sleep well at night,” he added.

The secretary of state’s reassurances to Americans and the world follow a series of heated rhetorical exchanges between North Korea’s regime and Trump, who on Tuesday afternoon said any additional threats from North Korea would trigger a response of “fire and fury” from the U.S.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said, speaking at his golf club in New Jersey. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Trump’s statement represents a stunning escalation in rhetoric, the likes of which all other U.S. presidents have avoided.

Although many understood Trump’s remarks as a thinly veiled threat of a nuclear attack, Tillerson said the president was simply speaking in terms North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un could understand.

Following Trump’s remarks, reports revealed that North Korea was considering an attack on Guam, an American territory in the Pacific that is home to two major U.S. military bases, marking the most specific threat issued by North Korea to date.

North Korea, which the Defense Intelligence Agency believes has created a miniaturized nuclear weapon, then vowed through its state-run media to “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war.”

Eddie Baza Calvo, the governor of Guam, echoed Tillerson’s assertion that the North Korean threat is being overblown.

“I know we woke up to media reports of North Korea’s talk of revenge on the United States and this so-called newfound technology that allows them to target Guam,” he said in a statement. “I’m working with Homeland Security, the rear admiral and United States to ensure our safety, and I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas.”

Trump, meanwhile, has done little to quell fears of impending war. The president began the morning by retweeting five tweets from Fox & Friends, including two stories that suggest the possibility of armed conflict between the U.S. and North Korea.

Trump then boasted of the power of America’s nuclear arsenal but added that he hoped it would never need to be used.

Although his order to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal was not the first executive order Trump signed as president (his first was about Obamacare), Trump did sign that executive order within his first week in office. More importantly, experts say the U.S. nuclear arsenal has changed little in the six months since Trump’s inauguration.

Trump has taken a cavalier approach to nuclear weapons in the past. During the 2016 campaign, he refused to take the nuclear option “off the table.”

“Look, nuclear should be off the table, but would there a time when it could be used? Possibly,” Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews during a March 2016 town hall. Asked whether he would use nuclear weapons in Europe, Trump responded, “I am not—I am not taking cards off the table.”

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*First Published: Aug 9, 2017, 8:32 am CDT