The Kerfuffle Before the Storm

With the phrase "the calm before the storm," President Trump on Thursday evening kicked off one of the biggest media kerfuffles since his late-night tweet in May about "the constant negative press covfefe." That mysterious locution produced a spate of stories speculating sardonically on what the president meant. We're now hearing a similar round of mockery. But this was no late-night typo in a tweet, and while offended members of the media default to derision, it's worth considering that the president quite likely sent a useful message to an audience that extends way beyond the White House press corps.

The setting was a dinner for top U.S. military commanders and their spouses, hosted by Trump in the White House State Dining Room. Trump invited reporters in for a brief photo-op. Flanked by military officials who have dedicated themselves to defending America and winning its wars, all gathered with their spouses under a big portrait of President Lincoln. Trump asked the reporters, "You guys know what this represents?"

"Tell us, sir," said one of the reporters.

"Maybe it's the calm before the storm," said Trump. A reporter asked, "What storm?" Trump gave the oblique reply, "We have the world's greatest military people in this room, I will tell you that." A reporter asked, again, "What storm?" Trump said, "You'll find out."

The entire exchange lasted about 30 seconds. The reporters were thanked and dismissed. The media were left to speculate on whether the "storm" referred to impending military action again North Korea, or maybe plans to back away from President Obama's Iran nuclear deal, or something else, or nothing at all. Asked again by reporters on Friday what he meant by "the calm before the storm," Trump again declined to clarify, saying again, "You'll find out."

This has been playing as a crazy-Trump story. CNN came out with the headline: "Trump is treating a potential war like a reality show cliffhanger," and warned, "This is no reality show... His words -- whether he means them as a tease, a threat or something in between -- can have very real consequences." Esquire called Trump "Our Reality TV President" and asked, "Will the season finale involve nuclear war with North Korea?" The New York Times called Trump's comment "ominous." NBC called it "provocative." Politico called it "unprompted." The Huffington Post, in a headline, called it "Bizarre."

I'd call it smart. We don't know precisely what the president had in mind. But we do know -- or we ought to know -- this: In world politics, there is a gathering storm that threatens America and our allies. There is a rising network of tyrannies hostile to American interests and values, including most prominently Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. The U.S. superpower can face down any one of these actors if it must, but the disturbing trajectory is that for years now -- whatever their differences -- they have effectively been making common cause against America and the requirements of a free and peaceful world order. They do illicit business together; they often back each other diplomatically, and they learn from each other just how much it is possible to get away with. Russia and China have been carrying out joint military maneuvers. North Korea, longtime weapons dealer to Iran, is cultivating an arsenal of nuclear missiles. The threats compound.