WASHINGTON _ You thought President Donald Trump might mellow out in 2018? Refrain from taunting world leaders tweet by tweet? Think again.
Trump is storming into the new year in exceptionally aggressive fashion, picking fresh fights on Twitter with such speed that his aides, international partners and the public are struggling to catch up. If he was brash on the global stage in Year 1, the first days of Year 2 suggest he was just warming up.
The Palestinians? No more U.S. aid until they get their act together and agree to peace talks with Israel.
Iran? “Failing at every level,” Trump tweeted as he declared full-throated U.S. support for protesters there opposing the government.
And North Korea? Leader Kim Jong Un may have a figurative “nuclear button” on his desk, but Trump’s is “much bigger,” the president quipped, flippantly tossing off a threat to launch the world’s first nuclear strike in more than 70 years
To Trump’s supporters, and even to his critics, it may seem business as usual. After all, in his inaugural year Trump relentlessly pushed presidential boundaries with provocative declarations that often weren’t fulfilled.
Yet for foreign nations trying anxiously to interpret the U.S. leader, such statements can have real-world consequences. Pakistan is livid at Trump’s remarks, summoning the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad to explain the disparagement of a key U.S. security partner. North Korea experts worry Trump’s taunting of Pyongyang could lead the two countries to stumble into war.
“I think he should stop. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous bravado,” former Vice-President Joe Biden told The Associated Press on Tuesday. During a visit to the U.S. Capitol, Biden also said Trump needed to learn that it’s not a game and that “words matter” when uttered by the commander in chief.
The White House played down the furor.
Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders insisted Trump wasn’t “taunting” Kim Jong Un, merely “standing up for the people of this country.” What would be dangerous, Sanders said, would be for Trump to stay silent.
“This is a president who is not going to cower down and is not going to be weak,” she said.
Trump’s rapid-fire spate of new pronouncements on foreign policy came as the president, fresh off his holiday vacation, made clear the second year of his presidency would be no less of a rollercoaster than the first.
On Wednesday, much of official Washington gasped as Trump, responding to a new book filled with criticism and insider gossip about his administration, issued a statement blasting his former chief strategist Steve Bannon as “out of his mind.”
“This is just who he is,” Ari Fleisher, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, said of Trump. “One year in, he still appraises his job as an outsider, not as the insider who leads the government, but the outsider who tweets and critiques and lets it rip.”
Trump’s social media taunts have left officials at the White House National Security Council, the State Department and other agencies scrambling over the past two days to determine whether he was setting new directions on a dime, or simply giving some New Year’s oomph to his pre-existing foreign policy.
For the most part, it turned out to be the latter. Senior administration officials said they’re directing government staff to consider the tweets to be “just tweets” and assume that no new policies are announced unless told otherwise through formal channels. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss internal conversations publicly and demanded anonymity.
On Pakistan, for instance, Trump tweeted about slashing the country’s aid because its leaders treat U.S. leaders “as fools” and “give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” He appeared to be echoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Her comments earlier in the day came as she confirmed the U.S. was withholding $255 million in assistance to Pakistan _ a decision made last summer.
Despite the anger in Islamabad, officials in Washington felt the uproar was overstated. Although Trump’s tweets were hardly diplomatic, officials said, they reflect years-long frustrations with the Pakistanis that have gripped administrations of both parties.
And Trump’s threat to cut aid to the Palestinians didn’t come out of the blue. U.S. officials had been considering steps against Palestinian authorities after they brought a vote to the U.N. General Assembly to condemn Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It passed overwhelmingly.
Officials described the discussions on cutting aid as still preliminary. An initial government-wide meeting to review possibilities is set for Thursday, and Trump’s top national security aides aren’t expected to weigh the options until at least next week, the officials said.
Nevertheless, Palestinians responded sharply, and senior officials there said they wouldn’t be “blackmailed” by Trump. Whatever the president decides, his threat didn’t give any immediate new life to an Arab-Israel peace process he wants to lead.