Trump and Tillerson: Good Cop, Bad Cop
In the immediate aftermath of perhaps the most tense day in recent history between the U.S. and North Korea — with President Trump vowing “fire and fury” if the rogue state continues its threats, only for that same state to respond by threatening a U.S. territory — the dust has not quite settled yet.
However, one thing can be clearly seen even through the still-high tensions: President Trump, once again, is mirroring Richard Nixon.
In at least two previous pieces, I have discussed the similarities between the 37th and 45th presidents, especially in the realm of foreign policy. Trump seems to adhere very well to Nixon’s infamous “madman theory,” where he makes himself seem more irrational than he is, and thus possibly prepared to take extreme measures - he has even exploited his lack of experience in the political realm to this very end, to make his irrationality seem even more real.
He then proceeded to mirror Nixon’s approach in another way with the Syrian airstrike. Much like Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the airstrike was never meant to be a declaration of war nor an act of invasion.
Instead, it was a display of power to America’s enemies in the region, in order to re-establish American credibility on the international stage and thus make American diplomatic efforts in the region much more likely to succeed. This not only worked as a lesson to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but it also may have played a role in the President’s then-ongoing talks with Chinese president Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago (where, among other things, they were discussing the issue of North Korea), and later the President’s trip to the Middle Eastern summit in Saudi Arabia.
Now, in the latest developments of the ongoing North Korean tensions, it appears that the President is acting out another famous diplomatic practice of the Nixon Administration: The “good cop, bad cop” routine. During Nixon’s presidency, Nixon would often act as an extremely passionate and angry anti-Communist, ready to unleash fury on America’s enemies in the Cold War, and particularly North Vietnam — sound familiar?
Then, after Nixon would make similar threats or hint at such possible actions, his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — arguably the greatest Secretary of State in American history — would step in and enact a calmer approach, appearing to offer a chance to escape the President’s wrath. This has been acknowledged by even President Trump’s harshest critics, the Washington Post, which pointed out an apparent enactment of this theory in past incidents earlier in the Trump Presidency, with such “good cop” figures as Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence.
Now, that scenario seems to be playing out again, with the same two positions in the same two roles: President Trump, with his “fire and fury” comments, is the “bad cop,” while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the “good cop.” A day after the President made his remarks, Secretary Tillerson insisted that military action might not be necessary, as a diplomatic solution may still be sufficient.
He has suggested that the U.S. can continue to alleviate the threat of North Korea by pressuring China into taking a similar hardline stance against its belligerent southern neighbor, which even earned praise from Senator Bernie Sanders. This approach was even recognized on Hallie Jackson’s show on MSNBC.
If the recently-passed unanimous UN sanctions against North Korea, and the surprising amount of bipartisan praise at home, are any indications, then this “good cop, bad cop” scenario still works quite well even 40 years later, and just might be the key to handling North Korea without any military action.