Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Trump nearly sent tweet that could have sparked war with North Korea, Watergate journalist says

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Could a single tweet spark a nuclear war? U.S. President Donald Trump may have narrowly avoided such a scenario had he sent out a missive he drafted that North Korea would have seen as a sign of an imminent attack, Watergate journalist Bob Woodward said in an interview Sunday.

Woodward, whose new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” will hit bookstore shelves Tuesday, told CBS that, amid a monthslong standoff with Pyongyang, the most dangerous moment came when the president went to work on a tweet about removing families of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

“He drafts a tweet saying ‘We are going to pull out dependents from South Korea. … Family members of the 28,000 people there,’ ” Woodward said on “CBS Sunday Morning.”

Although the tweet was never sent — because of a back channel message from North Korea that it would regard such a pullout of dependents as a sign the U.S. was preparing to attack — it startled the military’s top brass.

“At that moment there was a sense of profound alarm in the Pentagon leadership that, ‘My God, one tweet and we have reliable information that the North Koreans are going to read this as an attack is imminent,’ ” Woodward said.

Although the exact date of the drafted tweet is unclear, it was likely written last year amid a spate of missile launches by Pyongyang and its most powerful nuclear test to date as tensions — and even personal animosity — between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un soared to unseen highs and brought the two countries to the brink of war.

Those tensions have cooled in recent months as a form of detente took hold, culminating in the landmark Singapore summit in June between Trump and Kim.

Trump on Sunday saluted Kim for holding a massive military parade “without the customary display of nuclear missiles” to celebrate the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding.

“This is a big and very positive statement from North Korea. Thank you To Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong!” he tweeted.

“There is nothing like good dialogue from two people that like each other! Much better than before I took office.”

The tweet included a quote that said experts believe the missiles were cut from the parade to show Trump that the North is committed to denuclearizing.

“Theme was peace and economic development,” the U.S. president said.

Trump said Friday he was expecting a letter from Kim. He has since appeared upbeat about the state of relations.

Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense, however, questioned Trump’s assumption that the North withheld showing off long-range missiles in its parade to show that it is willing to relinquish its nuclear program.

“There are small lies and there are big lies,” Jackson wrote Monday on Twitter. “This is a gratuitous whopper — it’s just about something technical.”

In his interview, Woodward also echoed what many have long believed — that Trump does not see the United States as an indispensable ally, but rather as being taken advantage of by its friends and trading partners. Trump, he said, had even complained that his own advisers “don’t know anything about business. All they want to (do) is protect everybody … that we pay for.”

According to Woodward, the president is obsessed with the costs of the U.S. stationing 28,500 troops in South Korea as a first line of defense against the North. Trump has said “we get practically nothing” for the roughly $1.2 billion a year the U.S. spends to station forces there, adding at different times that Seoul and other allies — including Tokyo — should shoulder much more of the costs.

“I don’t know why they’re there,” Woodward quoted Trump as saying at one meeting. “Let’s bring them all home.” At another meeting, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was blunt in addressing the president’s concerns: “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III.”

These revelations, while striking and somewhat commonplace under the mercurial Trump, often highlight the president’s lack of understanding of checks and balances in the U.S. political system, experts say.

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said that such pronouncements “would be difficult to realize without support from the Senate and House.” He pointed specifically to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act — signed by Trump in August — which restricts him from unilaterally reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea to below 22,000 military personnel.

“The same can be said with signing a peace treaty with Pyongyang or unilaterally ending sanctions,” Nagy added. “Both require the Congress’s approval and they would not approve of his request.”

Nevertheless, a number of Trump’s proclamations have alarmed allies such as Japan, leaving leaders scrambling for more information as to whether or not the U.S. president really meant what he said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been no exception.

“The Abe administration’s responses to date when the Trump Administration does things unilaterally and without consultation has been to refrain from public criticism, to seek clarification on intention through consultation and to clarify Japan’s positions and its support for the alliance,” Nagy said, noting the acceptance of the Trump-Kim summit and the pausing of joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.

He said that if a potentially dangerous tweet that threatened Japan were sent, Tokyo would likely have a “similar response at the leadership level” but would also mobilize all resources and human networks to assess if the tweet “had any teeth” as it seeks to ascertain the White House’s true intentions.

News of Trump’s draft tweet and his views on the South Korean alliance could also have implications for U.S.-Japan trade talks, less than a week after he suggested to The Wall Street Journal that he will take on Japan next in his fight to cut trade deficits with trading partners.

Trump, has signaled that he could link economic and trade issues with security deals, holding the U.S.-Japan alliance hostage and putting Washington’s credibility on the line.

“If we don’t make a deal with Japan, Japan knows it’s a big problem,” he warned Friday.

“This signals to Japan that the U.S. under Trump prioritizes economic recalibration over long-standing comprehensive relations as embodied in the U.S.-Japan alliance,” Nagy said.

Still, he said, Tokyo was likely to find a way around the issue by strengthening its alliance with the U.S. “by finding meaningful ways to bolster its contributions,” such as by joining so-called freedom of navigation operations in the contested South China Sea and more joint military training.

“These decrease the U.S. burden (in the region) and thus are effective ways to placate a U.S. administration that is tethered to a focus on reciprocal relationships in the realm of economics,” Nagy said.

“Tokyo can and does further its position through a nonconfrontational approach with the Trump White House by finding other ways to mitigate economic disparities such as by purchasing more arms,” he added.