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Washington convulses over Trump’s ‘button’

Jan 05,2018
U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet bragging that he had a “much bigger and more powerful” nuclear button than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sparked an outcry in Washington, as congressmen called for more responsible rhetoric from their leader.

But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders downplayed concerns about Trump making nuclear threats in a briefing Wednesday and said the “people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea.”

Sanders continued, “This is a president who’s not going to cower down and he’s not going to be weak, and is going to make sure that he does what he’s promised to do, and that’s stand up and protect the American people.

In response to North Korean leader Kim declaring in a New Year’s address that a “nuclear button is always on my office desk,” Trump on Tuesday evening tweeted: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Trump’s ratcheting up of rhetoric comes at a time when North Korea has indicated for the first time it is willing to send athletes to the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics hosted by the South, and Seoul and Pyongyang are working toward arranging a high-level dialogue.

Pressed if Trump had been taunting North Korea with the tweet, Sanders said, “I think it’s just a fact.”

She also acknowledged that there is not an actual nuclear button on Trump’s desk and said, “The president is very well aware of how the process works and what the capacity of the United States is. And I can tell you that it’s greater than that of North Korea,” echoing Trump’s language about Washington’s nuclear arsenal.

Rather than a physical button, Trump would use the so-called “nuclear football,” a portable aluminum briefcase with a manual for the president on how to launch a nuclear attack, and a card of verification codes, or the “biscuit,” that always accompany him.

Only the U.S. president has the authority to launch a nuclear strike. That order is passed to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford.

Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia Subcommittee, pointed out that Trump’s rhetoric “borders on presidential malpractice,” in a statement, “needlessly deepening a crisis and squandering a fresh opportunity to attempt diplomacy as we try to peacefully negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

He continued, “We cannot let this war of words result in an actual war,” and called for Trump to “bring North Korea to the negotiating table” through a credible diplomatic campaign.

“President Trump must understand that the launching of insults could lead to the launching of nuclear bombs, and that would be a calamity for the Korean Peninsula and the entire world,” Markey added.

Markey, with Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu of California, has introduced legislation to limit the U.S. president’s ability to conduct a nuclear first strike without prior authorization from Congress.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday on CNN, “We’re very happy to see that there’s conversations taking place between North and South Korea,” calling for diplomacy between United States, China, and North Korea to supplement this.

But Cardin pointed out, “The president’s tweets have made it more difficult for diplomacy to work,” adding that Trump “undercut his own secretary of state,” Rex Tillerson, as he was “making progress with North Korea through back channels with diplomacy.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, also warned that Trump’s “foreign policy by tweet is doing serious damage to the country,” in a floor speech Wednesday.

“Where we have serious issues to address abroad, President Trump seems happy with macho boasts and belligerent threats that get us nowhere,” he added.

“If President Trump continues snubbing our allies, recklessly threatening other nations, and showing leadership on the world stage that can only be described as puerile, the world may look to Beijing, not Washington, for international leadership.”

Some Republican congressmen also expressed concern, and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told reporters on the president’s tweets, “I don’t know how anybody’s interests are served by escalating that rhetoric.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]