Trump Undermines His Own Secretary Of State’s Efforts On North Korea

Donald Trump is undermining his own Secretary of State's efforts on North Korea, and he doesn't seem to care.

Donald Trump Rex Tillerson

Over the weekend, President Trump used his Twitter account to undermine his own Secretary of State’s efforts to find some kind of diplomatic solution to the continuing crisis involving North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the dangers its poses to the United States, America’s allies in the region, and a good part of the rest of the world:

WASHINGTON — President Trump undercut his own secretary of state on Sunday, calling his effort to open lines of communication with North Korea a waste of time, and seeming to rule out a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear-edged confrontation with Pyongyang.

A day after Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said he was reaching out to Pyongyang in hopes of starting a new dialogue, Mr. Trump belittled the idea and left the impression that he was focused mainly on military options. Mr. Trump was privately described by advisers as furious at Mr. Tillerson for contradicting the president’s public position that now is not the time for talks.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, using the derogatory nickname he has assigned to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. “Save your energy Rex,” he added, “we’ll do what has to be done!”

While some analysts wondered if the president was intentionally playing bad cop to the secretary’s good cop, veteran diplomats said they could not remember a time when a president undermined his secretary of state so brazenly in the midst of a tense situation, and the episode raised fresh questions about how long Mr. Tillerson would remain in his job.

A former chief executive of Exxon Mobil with no prior government experience, Mr. Tillerson has been deeply frustrated and has told associates that he tries to ignore the president’s Twitter blasts. But these would be hard to disregard as Mr. Tillerson returned from China, where he was trying to enlist more support from North Korea’s primary trading partner and political patron.

“It may be intended as a good-cop, bad-cop strategy, but the tweet is so over the top that it undercuts Tillerson,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Council. “It’s hard to imagine any other president speaking in this manner.”

Christopher R. Hill, who under President George W. Bush was the last American negotiator to reach a significant agreement with North Korea, said, “Clearly, it is part of his management style, which seems to be to undermine his people at every turn.” While Mr. Hill took issue with the way Mr. Tillerson handled his disclosure in Beijing on Saturday, “Trump’s tweet undermines Tillerson’s visit, leaving his interlocutors wondering why they are wasting the time to speak with him.”

But Michael Green, who was Mr. Bush’s chief Asia adviser, said the time was not ripe yet for talks. “The president is right on this one in the sense that Pyongyang is clear it will not put nuclear weapons on the negotiating table, nor will the current level of sanctions likely convince them to do so, though an effective sanctions regime might in time,” he said.

Indeed, several hours after his initial tweets, Mr. Trump seemed to preclude the possibility that the time might ever be ripe, without laying out his own preferred strategy. “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now?” he wrote, evidently referring not just to Mr. Kim, who took over six years ago, but also his father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder. “Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.”

Here are the tweets in question:

In any other Administration, the idea that what we’re seeing here is some elaborate cat and mouse game in which the President is coming across in public as some kind of unhinged lunatic who thinks that hurling insults at an unpredictable leader of a hostile regime who continues to have rather obvious concerns about domestic and foreign plotters while his Secretary of State and other try to pursue a more diplomatic track might be believable. With this President, though, there’s pretty much no reason to believe that this is the case. Instead, as we’ve seen so many times in the past eight months, it’s more likely that he’s spouting off what he believes on Twitter without any real concern about whether or not he’s undermining his staff, his Cabinet members, or his own Administration’s policies in doing so. As he did with several of his Republican opponents during the campaign, who he often referred with nicknames like “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” or “Low Energy Jeb,” and during the General Election when her referred to his opponent as “Crooked Hillary,” Trump appears to truly believe that referring to the leader of an adversary with a nickname like “Rocket Man” or “Little Rocket Man” actually accomplishes something. He appears to be so convinced of this that he even used the nickname in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month, a forum that hardly seems appropriate for the kind of schoolyard tit-for-tat that Trump typically confines to his Twitter account or to campaign speeches.

Instead of being evidence of some sophisticated “good cop/bad cop” game that Trump and his advisers may be playing, it seems rather clear that this is yet another example of tweeting without thinking, or thinking that he knows better than his adviser how to handle a situation that Trump himself has been stumping American diplomats and Presidents for the past quarter-century. In this case, Trump clearly believes that threatening to annihilate North Korea in numerous public statements, an act which, if unprovoked, would be a violation of several treaties to which the United States is a signatory as well as constituting genocide under international law. These are things he obviously doesn’t care about as much as he cares about saying things in public that get a “Hell Yeah!” response from his sycophantic supporter. A President who is primarily motivated by his desire to sound like a tough guy is precisely the wrong person to be in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, that’s who were stuck with until at least January 20, 2021.

FILED UNDER: Asia, National Security, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Joe says:

    I read somewhere today that Trump was quoted as having “complete faith” in Tillerson. That, however, is not what anyone wonders.

  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    He doesn’t care because a military conflict with NK is the best distraction from the Russia investigation.
    Worse…if that’s not the reasoning…then he is simply the very worst negotiator to ever hold the office.
    I was able to visit relatives in Seattle last week. Very timely as this buffoon is likely to get them all irradiated soon.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    I think it’s pretty clear that Kim Jong Un (KJU?) isn’t terribly intimidated. How many times does he have to flip us off before we get that? Trump keeps threatening, and KJU keeps launching missiles. Trump threatens some more, more missiles, more tests.

    I don’t think our little North Korean friend thinks we mean it. I don’t think anyone else does either. I don’t think if the South Koreans took him seriously we’d be seeing this stock market in South Korea. Or this stock market in Japan. Or for that matter own stock market.

    If the money boys in SK and Japan aren’t buying the threats, why would KJU?

  4. grumpy realist says:

    OT: Nobody does political snark better than the Brits: Concerning their own Trump, Boris Johnson.

    Some of the lines are hilarious.

  5. Facebones says:

    The attempts to justify this as eleventy-dimensional chess by people who should know better are astounding.

    Trump doesn’t plan ahead. He reacts. He lashes out at perceived insults. He isn’t thinking ten steps ahead. He’s too busy insulting people.

    “But Facebones! This won him the election! How can you say it isn’t working?”

    It works to the extent that his hardcore base loves that he doesn’t think and lashes out and insults people. Combined with Russian ratfvcking, Comey, bitter Bernie Bros, and that was enough to give him 75K more votes in 3 swing states.

    It isn’t working in any way, shape or form with regards to diplomacy, negotiations, governance, etc.

  6. CSK says:

    Doug, to quote from the final paragraph of your piece: “…he cares about saying things in public that get a ‘Hell Yeah!’ response from his sycophantic supporter.”

    Love your use of the singular here. Would that it were so.

  7. KM says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Yep, he’s the bully that finally met someone who will not only call him on his sh^t but shove him right back down into it. This is a man who orders executions via being strapped to an anti-air gun for trivial things like music videos and going to Disney. He probably knows (and has had killed) several guys exactly like Trump. Kim looks at Donald, laughs and figures out how to use it to make himself look good to his people. There is no intimidation going on at all.

    What’s really funny about all this is Trump’s essentially bluffing it out with an unhinged mob boss. He supposedly has experience with this kind of thing – doesn’t he know what happens when the wiseguy finally decides enough is enough?

  8. CSK says:

    Love the expression on Tillerson’s face. If there were a thought bubble over his head, it would read: “Gawd, how did I get myself into this sh!show?”

  9. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK: He got himself into this sh!tshow because he thought he could unlock Exxon’s assets in Russia, frozen by sanctions. My lack of sympathy for his predicament knows no bounds.

    I’m also failing to be very surprised that making macho tweets for his base is higher priority for Trump than dealing with a nuclear crisis.

  10. al-Ameda says:


    He got himself into this sh!tshow because he thought he could unlock Exxon’s assets in Russia, frozen by sanctions. My lack of sympathy for his predicament knows no bounds.

    and then there’s Jon Huntsman …

    Putin told Ambassador Jon Huntsman that the current state of affairs between the U.S. and Russia was “below-satisfactory,” adding he hoped the two countries could rekindle relations on the basis of “equality, respect for national interests and noninterference with each other’s internal affairs,”

    They all sign on – voluntarily, of sound mind, etc … – to work for him

  11. CSK says:


    I wonder how many better people Trump asked to be SOS who said something along the lines of, “No, thanks, I have to wash my hair that night.”

    I give Tillerson credit for divorcing himself from Trump’s Charlottesville comments. I must add that that’s a fairly low bar to hurdle.

  12. CSK says:

    According to NBC, Tillerson called Trump a “moron” one day last summer after a meeting at the Pentagon. Not, I gather, to Trump’s face, which is unfortunate.