“Twitter could get us into a war.”
That sentence, which appears in Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, about the Trump Administration, has shocked a lot of people. Not me. Because I just wrote a novel in which precisely that same thing happens. And let me tell you: It’s not far-fetched.
Of course, we knew that Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, both have tried to get the president’s tweeting under control. Woodward just adds some wonderful color, explaining that Priebus took to calling Trump’s bedroom, where many of the tweets originated, “the devil’s workshop” and called the president’s favorite time for tweeting “the witching hour.” (The prediction that Twitter could get us into a war was reportedly made by an unnamed national security official.)
It is unsettling, the idea that the president could spark a nuclear war with the same carelessness that he picks fights with D-list celebrities. But he could. In fact, Trump’s tweets are central plot devices in my novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.
The novel, as the title suggests, purports to be the report of a government commission, like the 9/11 Commission, charged with asking how the United States and North Korea blundered into a nuclear war that killed several million people. And the answer is, at least in two crucial moments, Twitter.
Tweets are, after all, presidential statements. No matter how odd it might seem, foreign governments have little choice but to read and consider what President Trump says, no matter where he says it. North Korea is no exception.
On any given day, this is hardly the end of the world. Trump’s tweets might be appalling—but they are not dangerous, not usually. After all, Trump openly mused about assassinating Kim Jong Un at a campaign stop. In The 2020 Commission, Trump unleashes a series of spectacularly misogynistic and ugly tweets about Kim Jong Un’s sister. Those tweets don’t start a war, although they are part of the prelude, a few more drunken steps off the path that was supposed to lead to the denuclearization of North Korea.
The problem is what happens in crisis. In the novel, North Korea shoots down a South Korean airliner by mistake and South Korea responds with a very small, almost symbolic, missile strike. It is at this point that Trump, with one spectacularly ill-timed tweet, sets into motion a chain of events that neither he nor any of his staff can control. And it is all done innocently enough.
Trump hasn’t even been fully briefed about the crisis. He is about to descend the narrow set of stairs that lead into the basement at Mar-a-Lago and to the secure conference room. Trump is famously afraid of stairs—one of those things that an author can’t make up—and reaches for his phone as a kind of comfort. His tweet is a throwaway comment, a repetition of a bit of banter he had tried out a few minutes earlier in a phone call with his John Kelly-like chief of staff.
LITTLE ROCKET MAN WON’T BE BOTHERING US MUCH LONGER.
Oh, but how different that tweet looks to Kim Jong Un! In Florida, where Trump sends the tweet, it’s a sunny spring morning. But it's the middle of the night in North Korea and still winter. Kim is sitting on an uncomfortable chair, smoking in a dark and cold basement, trying to understand how serious this crisis is.
His cell phone is working only intermittently because the North Korean cell phone network is overwhelmed with calls, just like the US network on 9/11. Kim can’t quite tell how big the South Korean strike is and doesn't think Moon Jae-in would do it by himself. He starts to suspect that the strike is the beginning of an American invasion. And when he sees Trump’s tweet, he knows.
Hard to believe? Hardly. I teach a class on decision-making at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. And here is the truth: Leaders think the darndest things. Saddam Hussein, for example, did not believe the US would march all the way to Baghdad in 2003. His life depended on making the right call—and he blew it.
And it’s not just Saddam. The Soviet leadership in 1983 was unexpectedly gripped by a wave of paranoia that Ronald Reagan was planning a surprise attack—President Reagan had denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire,” prompting the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to call Reagan insane and a liar. The so-called War Scare of 1983—which also featured a civilian airliner being shot down—was one of the most perilous moments of the Cold War. And American leaders weren’t even aware of how worried the Soviets were until much later.
The point is that leaders make mistakes. If you look closely at past crises, like the War Scare or the Cuban Missile Crisis, presidents and other world leaders don’t look nearly as perceptive or sensible as they are later made out to be. They seem—surprise, surprise—pretty human: flawed, confused, and scared. And these people were generally pretty good at the job.
Trump, by contrast, is spectacularly bad at being president. Woodward reports that Trump’s response to Syria’s appalling use of chemical weapons was homicidal bloodlust. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in,” Trump reportedly told secretary of defense James Mattis, “Let’s kill the fucking lot of them.” It’s nearly as insane as reports that Trump pondered invading Venezuela. It’s not hard to imagine that Kim Jong Un might conclude that Trump wants to kill him.
Past leaders—Kennedy and Khruschev, Reagan and Andropov—had one more advantage: time. Those crises played out over days or weeks. Leaders had time to process information, to discuss it with advisers, to think about what it means. They made mistakes, but those mistakes were not immediately broadcast around the word. It simply wasn’t possible for the president to learn of a crisis on cable television or to send it spinning out of control with a careless social media post on his way to being briefed. To put it mildly: Times have changed.
One of the problems with fictionalizing Trump is that the real-life item says and does things far more outrageous than a writer could ever get away with. I couldn't let my fictional Trump say anything remotely as batshit crazy as what Woodward quotes Trump saying to Mattis. Instead, I dialed Trump back a bit—making him not nearly as homicidal or insane as the nonfiction Trump of Fear or Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.
But since I was writing under the guise of a commission, I tried to leave the reader with the feeling that Trump’s staff and my fictional commission were covering up his worst excesses—even after a nuclear catastrophe. I wanted the reader to get the creeping sense that things were worse than the commission was willing to let on and that the so-called adults were still cleaning up after Trump. In particular, my fictional commission is unwilling, or unable, to accurately report Trump’s reaction to learning of Melania Trump’s death in a nuclear strike that reduces Trump Tower to rubble.
It is generally true of all presidents that, up close, things are far worse than they appear in accounts written after the fact. But that’s a disquieting thought in the context of the Trump administration. The implication is that things at the White House are even more awful and chaotic than Wolff and now Woodward have portrayed them. It’s literally hard to imagine.
One reason for that failure of imagination is our deeply rooted human desire to make sense of even the most insane situation. In this way, we are all complicit in normalizing Trump. In both the real reporting and in my novel, everyone around Trump is focused on cleaning up after him. No one is able to look past Trump and take in the unfolding situation directly.
The effort to minimize the fallout from Trump’s tweets—as dangerous as they are—is just part of a larger, more elaborate ritual of trying to fake normalcy. Those around Trump present this as heroism—good people, patriots even, doing their best in a bad situation. Woodward seems to praise Mattis for hanging up after hearing the president muse about murdering Assad, then telling his staff that they will do nothing of the kind. And Woodward seems to praise Gary Cohn for stealing a draft out of Trump’s desk—a letter pulling out of a trade agreement with South Korea—to keep him from signing it.
But this misses the fact that each is involved with sustaining this presidency, which means the same problems recur over and over again. And what happens in a crisis? In my novel, everyone is so busy managing Trump, no one has the time or energy to manage the crisis that spins out of control and plunges us into a nuclear war.
I don’t think Kelly, Mattis, or Cohn are heroes. I think they are enabling Trump. They aren’t helping Trump to make good decisions, they are cloaking his abuses and tirades in the guise of normalcy. They are lulling us with the comforting thought that we can just wait out the next two years, although they hope it is six. They are holding out the false promise that we will necessarily muddle through, somehow, and that it won’t lead to catastrophe. They are telling us that we are all overreacting. That, after all, it’s just a tweet.