Speed Reads

North Korea

Is Trump playing 'bad cop' on North Korea to Rex Tillerson's 'good cop'? He shouldn't, experts say.

On Sunday, President Trump publicly undercut Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is in Asia, by tweeting that he should stop "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," North Korea's Kim Jong Un, adding: "Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" A few hours later, he tweeted: "Being nice to Rocket Man hasn't worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won't fail." Kim, 33, assumed power in 2011, so Trump was presumably including his father and grandfather as "Rocket Man."

There are several theories on Trump's motive for undercutting Tillerson and implying certain military action. Trump was "privately described by advisers as furious" at Tillerson for contradicting his public position on talks with Pyongyang, The New York Times reports, but Trump also "could be attempting his own version of Richard M. Nixon's 'madman' theory, casting himself as trigger-happy to bolster the bargaining power of his aides." Unfortunately, in this case, "a misreading of North Korea could result in an atmospheric nuclear test or an artillery barrage against Seoul," the Times notes, and "Kim likes to play madman as well."

Jonathan Swan at Axios recounts Trump's use of the "madman" theory, in a meeting where Trump told U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer not to tell Seoul his timeline for saving a free trade deal. "You don't tell them they've got 30 days," Trump reportedly said. "You tell them, 'This guy's so crazy he could pull out any minute.'"

There's also the related theory that Trump intended this "as a good-cop, bad-cop strategy, but the tweet is so over the top that it undercuts Tillerson," former CIA Korea analyst Sue Mi Terry tells the Times. Trump made a violent confrontation more likely when he ignored the advice from his national security aides and personalized the dispute with Kim, said The New Yorker's Evan Osnos. "By extending the taunts to his own secretary of state, Trump might imagine that he is playing the bad cop to Tillerson's good cop," but this "ham-fisted effort to make Pyongyang more pliable to Tillerson's entreaties" just gave Pyongyang reason to ignore Tillerson. "This is not a police procedural," Osnos adds.