How Trump’s respect for military leaders outweighs his need to annihilate enemies – for now

Robert Delaney says the recent White House tell-all book by Michael Wolff confirms Trump’s veneration of military leaders in his midst, but will it be enough to continue to restrain his urge to crush North Korea?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 1:37pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 7:46pm

In September 2015, The New York Times Magazine ran a prescient feature. The writer started with this recollection about then presidential candidate Donald Trump on his private Boeing 757: “He was dividing his attention between the brick-size slice of red-velvet cake he was annihilating and the CNN commentator on the 57-inch television …”

The key term is annihilation. Whether his dessert, someone criticising him or a group such as journalists or the intelligence community, Trump craves the ability to annihilate.

Trump treats foreign policy dilemmas the same way. The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Climate Accord were not merely characterised by Trump as bad for business. He cast them as existential threats engineered by individuals pushing the country into a complete economic collapse.

Then came Trump’s threat to hit North Korea with “fire and fury”.

Many analysts consider the stand-off over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme the most serious threat to global security, because Kim Jong-un appears to think a nuclear weapons arsenal is his regime’s only hope for long-term survival and because Trump seems to disregard the possible consequences of further taunting and posturing that hints at a pre-emptive US strike.

But Trump backed away from his annihilation-loving character last week, agreeing to postpone joint military exercises with South Korea until after the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. What would make Trump accede to a request by South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, to stand down, even temporarily?

Why North Korea’s Olympic ‘olive branch’ will only end in South Korean disappointment

Accounts of Trump’s inner world suggest he has a deep respect for military values, even if he does not live by such discipline. Among the insights in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House , is confirmation of Trump’s deference to admired military figures in his administration.

“Trump, a former military academy cadet – albeit not an enthusiastic one – had touted a return to military values and expertise,” Wolff reported. “It was just one irony of his courtship of admired military figures like [Defence Secretary] James Mattis, [National Security Advisor] H.R. McMaster, and [White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly: they found themselves working in an administration that was in every way inimical to basic command principles.”

‘They all say Trump is like a child’: author defends White House exposé as Rex Tillerson insists president is mentally fit to serve

Another passage helps explain how Trump can veer from juvenile schoolyard taunts to sober restraint:

“If the Trump White House was as unsettling as any in American history, the president’s views of foreign policy and the world at large were among its most random, uninformed, and seemingly capricious aspects. His advisers didn’t know whether he was an isolationist or a militarist, or whether he could distinguish between the two. He was enamored with generals and determined that people with military command experience take the lead in foreign policy, but he hated to be told what to do.”

What seems clear from Wolff’s account and from other Washington insiders is that the military brass in Washington have served to keep our most pressing geopolitical flashpoint from turning into nuclear winter.

Nuclear weapons far from laughing matter

The months to come will be a test of whether Trump continues to defer to the generals in his midst on North Korea.

The investigation into connections between Trump’s inner circle and Russian interference in the 2016 election has the potential to reveal very damaging information about Trump or his family members – which might trigger his instinct and craving for annihilation.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York