President Donald Trump said in an Oval Office meeting in September that he wanted aides to describe him to South Korean leaders as being “so crazy” that he could pull out of a longstanding U.S.-Korean trade deal and make erratic, unpredictable moves at any time.
Jonathan Swan of Axios.com reported Sunday night that sources present for the discussion confirmed that Trump told trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer to go into negotiations with South Korea portraying the U.S. chief executive as a volatile wild card in order to throw the U.S. ally off balance.
“You’ve got 30 days, and if you don’t get concessions then I’m pulling out,” Trump reportedly told Lighthizer.
“Ok, well I’ll tell the Koreans they’ve got 30 days,” Lighthizer replied.
“No, no, no,” Trump interrupted. “That’s not how you negotiate. You don’t tell them they’ve got 30 days. You tell them, ‘This guy’s so crazy he could pull out any minute.'”
Trump went on, “That’s what you tell them: Any minute. And by the way, I might. You guys all need to know I might. You don’t tell them 30 days. If they take 30 days they’ll stretch this out.”
“Plenty of world leaders think the president is crazy — and he seems to view that madman reputation as an asset,” said Swan. “The downsides are obvious: the rhetoric can unnerve allies and has the potential to provoke enemies into needless, unintended war. But Trump keeps using the tactic, with varying degrees of success.”
He pointed to examples like Trump’s constant undercutting of his aides by allowing them to issue a statement and then immediately contradicting it, like what has happened this weekend between Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Tillerson said Saturday that the administration is attempting to avoid war with North Korea by trying to find common ground and opening diplomatic talks. On Sunday, Trump tweeted at Tillerson, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
The plan of escalating threats and aggressive posturing, Swan said, could have some success, but “can only produce short-term results, if he doesn’t follow through on them.”
Senior officials are wearing of the constant battering they receive when Trump contradicts them or undercuts the administration’s message.