Jake Tapper joined me this morning to discuss the crisis on the Korean Peninsula:
HH: Not to be missed today in his usual spot on CNN will be Jake Tapper. My colleague, Jake, is one of the few people who actually takes the American military very, very seriously, beginning with his book, The Outpost. But he continually keeps a focus on men and women in uniform, the threats they face, the wounds they suffer. And right now, all of the Americans in South Korea and their dependents are under significant threat. And Jake, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, on the record with Andrea Mitchell, H.R. McMaster, General McMaster on the record with me last Saturday, the Army Chief of Staff Milley all say this is an imminent crisis. I don’t know that the media is covering it like that. They’re covering it like a political debate about Donald Trump. Do you sense this?
JT: Well, it depends on the media. I mean, I don’t think that we’ve been covering it like a political debate about Donald Trump. We’ve been covering the North Korean crisis since the show began during the Obama years. And certainly, you know, as the tests of the missiles and the nuclear devices have increased in the last several months, we’ve been covering that threat as well. I guess the one good news in this showdown that we’re seeing right now is that there has been no evacuation order for the thousands of dependents of the U.S. military stationed in South Korea or Japan. And so in terms of the imminence of the threat, that’s one thing to look for, like are they actually evacuating the children and spouses of the U.S. military in the places that are under siege the most, under threat the most from a North Korean nuclear missile. And they are not, so that’s some good news. I agree, though, it is primarily a geopolitical and military story, although I think, you know, the President’s ability and the President’s desire to react in a way that he thinks will be effective, it’s certainly a topic of this. And you know, for the record, I was just earlier today reviewing your question of President Trump back in December, 2015 about the nuclear triad. And there’s really, I don’t know what you have said about that question, Hugh, but there’s really no way to look at that and not come away with the idea that he really didn’t know what the triad was.
HH: No, it’s a huge learning curve, and he tweeted this morning he launched a modernization, which President Obama had also launched, and I hope it’s proceeding apace. But one of my military experts DM’d me this morning, Jake; “Trump has brought back the concept of strategic ambiguity again in a way not seen since Reagan, and before that, Eisenhower. This has offset the sense of strategic predictability that’s come to characterize modern American military strategy and given more room for negotiation of policy makers. Check out Evan Thomas’ book, Ike’s Bluff.” Now this is a very serious guy, and I, there just aren’t enough people like you who spend enough time talking to military people to try and contextualize whether or not Trump’s learning curve has been climbed, yet, to contextualize that it’s Dunford and McMaster and Milley. It isn’t Trump who said we can’t allow them, and Admiral Stavridis told me.
HH: We cannot allow them to miniaturize and ICBM-ize their nuclear arsenal.
JT: No, and the strategic unpredictability is something that I tried to discuss on my show yesterday. The truth is we’re getting very few readouts, we in the press are getting very few readouts about the strategy going on here, and maybe that’s on purpose, or maybe, you never know with the Trump White House how much is on purpose and how much is, you know, there’s some chaos going on there. But is this a question of, I mean, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a press conference today in Guam in which he said that President Trump was issuing the threat in language that Kim Jung Un would understand. And then there is, as you know, and as your source noted, there is the idea out there of it’s not good cop/bad cop quite, but it is what Ronald Reagan had, which is the notion that he is surrounded by secretaries who are reasonable men, and you can do deals with them, and you can talk to them if you’re somebody like Kim Jung Un. But the President himself is unpredictable, and you never know what he’s going to do. And is that the strategy going forward? Is that what they are trying to do? And I don’t know. I’m willing to contemplate it as a possibility, but I don’t know. But if you look at the statement that President Trump has made about the use of nuclear weapons in the past, he talks about the unpredictability and the need for that. But he also does seems to have, I have to say, a lack of comprehension of why nuclear is treated differently by world leaders than other forms of weapons. I mean, he has said there’s…
HH: Oh, there’s, yeah.
JK: He said why do we make them if we’re not going to use them?
HH: There’s a huge predicate, there’s a huge predicate for the position he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, all right? I get that. But I do think we’ve got to focus more on where we are right now and the threat to Americans in Seoul.
HH: Let me ask you, because I just don’t know the answer. Is it illegal for Americans to assassinate foreign leaders? I asked McMaster this in roundabout terms, and he fudged. What is your opinion of that law? It’s a legal question. I just don’t know the answer.
JT: I’m not a lawyer, and I’m certainly not a military lawyer. I don’t know. I have asked this question of military leaders, retired military leaders before as well, why not? You know, there is this idea, in fact, I think I asked Admiral McRaven about this, I believe, and who was, as you know, former head of Special Ops. And the idea is it’s not that simple. You can’t just sneak in there and assassinate him and get out. It would be a much more complicated process, and lots of people would die.
HH: Something I’ve got to follow up on tomorrow. Jake Tapper, I’ll be watching you today on [The Lead] as I always do. Thanks for joining me, Jake Tapper.
End of interview.