Trump Calls Emergency Meeting With Military Leaders 'the Calm Before the Storm'
President gathers top brass and gives ominous warning to the press
President Trump has called a secret emergency meeting with top military leaders and told the press that the gathering is "the calm before the storm".
After the meeting, President Trump through a dinner for military commanders and their spouses in the White House, and Mr. Trump summoned reporters who were still at work to the State Dining Room.
Whilst his guests were all lines up for a photo op, the president gestured his hands in a circular motion to indicate he was talking about everyone who was in the room and said:
“You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”
“What’s the storm?” asked one reporter.
“Could be the calm before the storm,” Mr. Trump repeated, stretching out the phrase, a sly smile playing across his face.
“From Iran?” ventured another reporter. “On ISIS? On what?”
“What storm, Mr. President?” asked a third journalist, a hint of impatience creeping into her voice.
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NYT reports: As the generals shifted from foot to foot, Mr. Trump brought the game of 20 Questions to an end. He praised his beribboned guests as the “world’s great military people” and excused the stymied reporters, who returned to their workstations to start another round of: What was the president talking about?
By Friday, the White House was still unable to shed light on the matter; several of Mr. Trump’s aides said they had no idea what the president meant. But the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, wanted to make one thing clear: Mr. Trump wasn’t just teasing his favorite antagonists. He was sending a message.
“I wouldn’t say that he’s messing with the press,” Ms. Sanders told reporters.
“I think we have some serious world issues here. I think that North Korea, Iran both continue to be bad actors, and the president is somebody who’s going to always look for ways to protect Americans, and he’s not going to dictate what those actions may look like.”
Suddenly, Mr. Trump’s preprandial banter took on an ominous tone. Maybe he was foreshadowing war with North Korea, which he has already threatened with “fire and fury” if the reclusive country aimed its missiles at the United States. Or perhaps he was predicting a clash with Iran, a week before he is expected to disavow the nuclear deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“He certainly doesn’t want to lay out his game plan for our enemies,” Ms. Sanders declared.
Sometimes, though, Mr. Trump’s statements leave his own staff in the dark, forcing them to impute a meaning to his words that might not actually exist. Privately, a few aides said they did not believe the president was preparing the country for war with either North Korea or Iran.
But they also noted Ms. Sanders has had a more successful debut as press secretary than her predecessor, Sean Spicer, in part because she has not attempted to clean up Mr. Trump’s statements – something that would rankle the president.
The president’s penchant for provocative statements is well established. In March, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
Pressed by reporters at the time, Mr. Spicer tried to walk back the claim, saying “the president used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities.”
Mr. Trump also shows an obvious delight in keeping people guessing. At the United Nations last month, he announced he had made up his mind about how to handle the Iran nuclear deal but was not going to tell the public. When he met Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, perhaps America’s closest ally, she asked him what he had decided. He refused to tell her, either.
“I didn’t know he was going to say today he’s made a decision,” a bemused Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said at the time. “I knew he had, but I didn’t know he was going to say he had.”
Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, is credited with coining the principle of constructive ambiguity in diplomacy: the use of deliberately fuzzy language to overcome sensitive issues in negotiations between countries. Mr. Trump may have tried a variation of that on Thursday evening, except that he was applying it to military deterrence.
In his prepared remarks to the military leaders, Mr. Trump outlined a series of specific challenges.
“We have had challenges that we really should have taken care of a long time ago, like North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, ISIS and the revisionist powers that threaten our interests all around the world,” the president said, using the acronym for the Islamic State.
What made Mr. Trump’s reference to the “calm before the storm” particularly tantalizing was the timing.
For weeks, he has promised to retaliate against any North Korean aggression toward the United States. When Mr. Tillerson spoke in Beijing last week about seeking diplomatic channels to the North, Mr. Trump followed up with a tweet that his chief diplomat was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president’s nickname for the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.
Mr. Trump also faces an Oct. 15 deadline to recertify the nuclear deal with Iran that was negotiated among world powers during the Obama administration. He is expected to decline to recertify the agreement, which would essentially kick it to Congress to decide whether to reimpose economic sanctions against Tehran.
But it is equally plausible that Mr. Trump was merely being theatrical, using the backdrop of military officers to stir up some drama. As the president spoke, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul J. Selva, stood next to him stoically.
Perhaps it is not Mr. Kissinger, but his former boss, Richard M. Nixon, who is the president’s model. Nixon devised the “madman theory” of statecraft, under which he hoped to keep the nation’s foes off balance by persuading them that he was impulsive and unpredictable.
Asked whether Mr. Trump had adopted Nixon’s keep-‘em-guessing approach, Ms. Sanders said, “If you’re asking, is the president trying to do that? Absolutely. I mean, I don’t think that’s a secret.”
As for Mr. Trump, he seemed to savor the speculation. When a reporter asked him during a signing ceremony in the Oval Office what he meant by the “calm before the storm,” he winked, paused, and said, “You’ll find out.”