UPDATE: More tweets from President Trump on October 7, 2017, make clear that the calm before the storm means war with North Korea.
Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2017
…hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2017
The ‘Calm before the Storm’ means war with North Korea, not problems with Iran.
At last night’s gathering of his military leaders, President Trump referred to the moment as the “calm before the storm.” However, President Trump did not assemble his military leaders to discuss the tropical storms and hurricanes brewing in the Atlantic. In assembling military leadership, only two plausible “storms” exist: (1) the North Korean nuclear threat, and (2) President Trump’s decision today to decertify Iran’s compliance with the the Iran Nuclear Agreement. The Iran decertification issue is relatively trivial [a striking commentary on the current state of affairs], so we’ll address it first.
Decertification of Iran’s compliance with the Iran Nuclear Agreement is not the ‘Calm Before the Storm’ because it is a political problem, not a military one.
Two documents primarily govern the Iran Nuclear Agreement. First, the Agreement itself is a 159 page behemoth that represents an historic cooperation between the United States and its diplomatic partners on the one hand, and Iran on the other. Read the full text of the Agreement here. Second is the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (H.R. 1191, enacted into law May 22, 2015 as Public Law 114-17). Read the full text of the Act here. The Review Act amended the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to authorize the President to enter into the Iran Nuclear Agreement, which was finalized in Vienna on July 14, 2015.
As amended, Section 135(d)(6)(A) of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 requires the President every 90 days to certify Iran’s compliance or notify Congress that he is unable to do so. President Trump’s decertification now triggers Section 135(e), which permits (but does not require) the House or the Senate to submit “qualifying legislation” reimposing sanctions within 60 days of the President’s decertification. Such qualifying legislation is entitled to expedited review with accelerated committee schedules and typically lengthy Senate debates limited to 10 hours. And Points of Order are waived entirely. See generally Section 135(e)(1)-(6).
As you can see, the consequences of President Trump’s decision to decertify Iran’s compliance with the Iran Nuclear Agreement are entirely political in nature and relegated to the Legislative Branch. It is not a military matter. And anyway, I do not recall President Trump making any recent threats of military action against Iran.
President Trump convened his military leaders to discuss military matters (North Korea), not political problems.
With Iran safely to the side, the only remaining plausible discussion point for yesterday’s meeting is North Korea. Cryptically, the President stated that the dinner represented the “calm before the storm” (but he would not specify the storm to which he was referring).
When asked earlier today to clarify what he meant by “calm before the storm, the President deferred and stated simply, “you’ll find out.”
In the press room today, ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the president was referring to military intervention. Sanders echoed the President’s cryptic message, stating, “you’ll have to wait and see.”
Veteran reporter April Ryan got her turn too, asking:
Have you–has this White House exhausted diplomacy? Because for him to say “the calm before the storm,” and listening to what you just had to say…?
Ms. Huckabaee Sanders replied
We’re continuing to put maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on countries like North Korea. We’re going to continue to do that, but at the same time the President is going to keep all of his options on the table. Our position has not changed. It’s been very consistent.
Ms. Ryan even got in a followup: “So it’s North Korea that’s the storm?” Ms. Huckabee Sanders replied:
I’m just using that as an example. I think we’ve got a lot of bad actors in the world: North Korea, Iran, there’s several examples there.
But see above for why the President could not possibly have been referring to Iran. Decertifying Iran’s compliance with the Iran Nuclear Agreement creates a political problem for the legislative branch, not a military problem for his generals. The only remaining “bad actor” that Ms. Huckabee Sanders pointed to is… wait for it… North Korea.
Here is the entire exchange:
Presidential rhetoric matters: a brief history lesson.
After the 9/11 attacks, newly elected President George W. Bush stated: “I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” We promptly proceeded to level Kabul and much of Afghanistan, to be followed in 2003 by the Second Gulf War.
President Barack Obama stated in 2013 that if Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in his country’s civil war, that would represent a red line that, when crossed, would warrant United States military action. While President Obama never made good on that promise, President Trump did. On April 6, 2017, President Trump launched a targeted attack against Syrian military units in response to press reports of a chemical weapons attack. Read the official White House statement here.
President Trump has threatened North Korea a lot.
Presidents Bush and Obama had, depending on your view, either the good or bad judgment not to take to Twitter to air their grievances against potential adversaries. But in case anybody has forgotten, here is a sampling of statements President Trump has made about North Korea on Twitter.
I spoke with President Moon of South Korea last night. Asked him how Rocket Man is doing. Long gas lines forming in North Korea. Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 17, 2017
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 19, 2017
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2017
The President even tweeted to the Secretary of State that he is wasting his time.
Most shockingly, on October 1, 2017, President Trump tweeted to (apparently soon-to-be-former) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that he is “wasting his time” engaging in diplomatic efforts to solve the North Korea problem.
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
The Conclusion: The “Calm Before the Storm” refers to North Korea, with whom we will soon be at war.
I understand the extremity of the conclusion, but this is not a President that hedges his bets, and so neither will I. The President’s constant rhetoric on North Korea, the convening of his military leaders, his cryptic statements about the “calm before the storm,” and this country’s history of making good on its threats against its adversaries, leave only one inescapable conclusion: the United States is gearing up for war–or at least military action–against North Korea.
But only Congress can declare war…?
Before I am reminded that only Congress can declare war, I refer readers to the War Powers Act of 1973, which gives the President broad authority to unilaterally initiate military action subject to a congressional review period. Should circumstances continue to devolve into a military confrontation, as I expect they will, I will prepare a separate analysis of the President’s powers under the War Powers Act as they relate to North Korea.