When President Trump gave a fiery campaign speech in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday evening, he drew a rapturous roar by ridiculing Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as “Little Rocket Man.”
Among diplomats and national security specialists, the reaction was decidedly different. After Mr. Trump repeated his taunt in a tweet late Saturday and threatened that Mr. Kim and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they continue their invective against the United States, reactions ranged from nervous disbelief to sheer terror.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to casually threaten to annihilate a nuclear-armed foe was yet another reminder of the steep risks inherent in his brute-force approach to diplomacy. His strengths as a politician — the ability to appeal in a visceral way to the impulses of ordinary citizens — are a difficult fit for the meticulous calculations that his own advisers concede are crucial in dealing with Pyongyang.
The disconnect has led to a deep uncertainty about whether Mr. Trump is all talk or actually intends to act. The ambiguity could be strategic, part of an effort to intimidate Mr. Kim and keep him guessing. Or it could reflect a rash impulse by a leader with little foreign policy experience to vent his anger and stoke his supporters’ enthusiasm.
His new chief of staff and his national security team have drawn a line at trying to rein in his more incendiary provocations, fearing that their efforts could backfire with a president who bridles at any effort to control him. What remains unclear — and the source of much of the anxiety in and out of the government and on both sides of the Pacific — is whether they would step in to prevent the president from taking the kind of drastic action that matches his words, if they believed it was imminent.
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