Sunday Political Brunch When Presidents Talk Tough—August 13, 2017

Sunday, August 13, 2017


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Mark Curtis

President Trump stirred a lot of emotion this week, when he warned North Korea - which continues to make missile threats - that “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea even threatened to launch a nuclear missile at Guam, a nearby U.S. territory. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Fire and Fury” -- So how did Trump's warning play? Trump fans loved it. They believe it’s time for a U.S. President to talk tough and to be willing to back it up with military might. Critics thought the warning was reckless “cowboy bluster,” which might provoke North Korea to make military strikes. I was surprised at how shocked many people were, as if no U.S. President has ever talked tough like this before. History tells us otherwise.

“Words Are Diplomacy” – Many of the President’s critics would like to see diplomacy given more of a chance. But the North Korea problem is not new. It has been a thorn in the sides of Trump and his three predecessors in the White House. Now, its Kim Jong Un; but before him, it was his equally provocative father, Kim Jong Il. Neither seemed inclined to seriously consider diplomatic efforts, but many believe a stern intervention by North Korea’s ally, China, might be the ticket to a diplomatic solution. In the meantime, the two Kims have launched numerous missiles, which - although mostly duds - sooner or later might hit pay dirt.

“Tear Down This Wall!” – Many people remember it fondly, but it was not so popular at the time. When President Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in June, 1987, to plead for an end to Communist East Germany, he defiantly said to the then-Soviet dictator, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” My friend Peter Robinson - a Reagan speechwriter now at Stanford University - wrote the address. He and senior White House aides debated whether the controversial line should be in or out. It stayed at Robinson’s insistence, and the rest is history. Critics thought Reagan was trying to escalate the arms race with Russia and it could lead to war. It didn’t. In fact, the Berlin Wall came down just over two years later.

“Don’t Tread on Us!” – President Clinton surprised a lot of people just five months into his term, when he ordered a bombing raid on Iraq. U.S. intelligence had uncovered an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush. This is what President Clinton said: “From the first days of our Revolution, America's security has depended on the clarity of this message: Don't tread on us. A firm and commensurate response was essential to protect our sovereignty, to send a message to those who engage in state-sponsored terrorism…” His critics thought Clinton was beating his own chest, but Saddam Hussein backed off, if only for a few years.

“To Kill bin Laden” – During a debate with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in 2008, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) said, “If we have Osama Bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take him out, then I think that we must act, and we will take him out. We will kill Bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.” He said a similar thing in primary debates with Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY). Obama was widely booed by official Washington for telegraphing an incursion into the sovereign state of Pakistan. Senators Clinton and McCain seized on this as wrong. In May, 2012, Obama did exactly what he had promised. He ordered a raid into Pakistan, without telling its leaders, and called the strike that killed Bin Laden.

“Bring ‘em On!” – In July, 2003, contemplating war with Iraq, President George W. Bush said, "There are some who feel like -- that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is 'Bring 'em on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation'." Bush was harshly criticized for his provocative language. Years later, he acknowledged that even First Lady Laura Bush had not been happy. He said, “I can remember getting back to the White House; and Laura said, 'What did you do that for?' I said, 'Well, it was just an expression that came out. I didn't rehearse it.' I don't know if you'd call it a regret, but it certainly is a lesson that a President must be mindful of, that the words that you sometimes say - I speak plainly sometimes - but you've got to be mindful of the consequences of the words.”

“Why All of This Matters” – It’s interesting that George W. Bush, perhaps the most-criticized President of recent time (before Donald J. Trump), has the greatest insight into this dilemma. As President, your words are carefully weighed. Speak too weakly, and you are called a wimp. Talk too tough, and you are called a bully. The great equalizer is when Presidents back up their rhetoric with real action. All the Presidents I cited here backed up their tough words with concrete action. Will President Trump join their ranks? Stay tuned!

Was President Trump’s talk too tough? Or will it invite trouble? Just click the comment button at


Related Slideshow: RI Democrats React to Trump’s Budget - 2017

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Gina Raimondo 

RI Governor 

"Rhode Island is making strong progress to provide our people with the education and job training they need to be successful and to expand access to affordable, quality health care to virtually everyone in our state. 

President Trump's budget betrays Rhode Islanders by giving huge tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest Americans while drastically reducing federal funding for vital programs that create jobs, raise wages, and protect low-income Americans. 

Even as we analyze President Trump's budget in the coming days to determine its specific impacts on Rhode Island, I appreciate the members of Rhode Island's Congressional Delegation for their leadership and advocacy, and I join them in calling on their colleagues in Washington, D.C. to stop the Trump administration from making massive cuts to health care, public schools, affordable housing, and other programs that Rhode Islanders rely upon."

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Jim Langevin 

U.S. Congressman

“In March, President Trump released a budget outline that I strongly condemned for its drastic cuts to programs that help everyday Americans. Unfortunately, the President’s full budget proposal continues these harmful policies by gutting programs that invest in our economy, create jobs and provide crucial assistance to families across the country. 

This proposal slashes funding for education, food assistance and health care for low-income seniors, children and people with disabilities. It makes cuts to worker training, environmental protection, and investments in medical research and advanced manufacturing. These are not mere luxuries, but programs that make meaningful differences in the lives of Rhode Islanders. 

Congress must reject this cynical and misguided budget. Instead, we should work together in a bipartisan manner, as we did on the recently passed 2017 funding bill, to find a balanced approach to funding priorities that will support families, promote economic growth and provide for our national security.”  

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David Cicilline

U.S. Congressman

“If a budget is a statement of your priorities and values, then Donald Trump’s budget shows he doesn’t understand the challenges facing honest, hardworking Rhode Islanders. This is a budget written by the wealthiest Americans for the benefit of the wealthiest Americans. But it’s a setback for the middle class. It makes life harder for anyone who’s trying to punch a ticket to the middle class.”

Donald Trump has already proposed a huge tax cut for billionaires. But the budget he released today says everyone else is on their own. This budget eliminates hundreds of millions of dollars for job creation. It zeroes out funding for workforce training and good-paying manufacturing jobs in Rhode Island. And it makes it even harder for young people to succeed by cutting teacher training, eliminating afterschool funding, and making it harder to pay off student loans.”

This budget does nothing to address Rhode Island’s crumbling infrastructure. It eliminates the TIGER grant program, which is critical to supporting local infrastructure projects like the new commuter rail station in Pawtucket. And it cuts funding for public transit by $928 million.”

And most worrisome of all, this budget makes our towns and cities less safe. It actually cuts funding for firefighters. It cuts billions from the EPA and other resources to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe. And it slashes $978 million from the Army Corps of Engineers – meaning Rhode Island will be less prepared for hurricanes and have fewer resources to protect the quality of our waterways.”

Plain and simple, this is not a budget that any Member of Congress should be comfortable supporting. Along with my colleagues in the House Democratic Leadership, I will do everything I can to reverse these devastating cuts and shape a budget that invests in the future of our country and puts honest, hardworking families first.”

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Sheldon Whitehouse 

U.S. Senator

“This budget is reckless, plain and simple. The President proposes massive cuts to Medicaid, breaking yet another campaign promise. He seeks to decimate the federal government’s central command in the battle against the opioid crisis affecting communities from Burrillville to Westerly. He pursues tens of billions of dollars in cuts to student loans and loan forgiveness programs.

His plan would slash funding for research into life-saving cures; lay waste to endowments that support Rhode Island’s world-class cultural institutions; hamstring the EPA so big polluters can poison our air and water; and weaken NOAA, sapping critical resources for coastal economies like Rhode Island’s. The list goes on.

These senseless, irresponsible choices serve one purpose: to pave the way for tax cuts for the very wealthiest.  The good news is that this extremist proposal will go nowhere in the Senate. I look forward to moving past this political stunt of a budget and working on one the American people will support.”

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Jack Reed 

U.S. Senator

“President Trump’s budget is bad news for Rhode Island because it weakens our economy and places new burdens on families, businesses, and communities across the country. 

The Trump budget takes a less is more approach: less investment in education, health care, transportation and safety for the general public and more pollution, outsourcing jobs overseas, and tax breaks for the wealthy and well-connected.

This irresponsible budget would be a real setback for middle-class families and seniors in particular.  The $800 billion in Medicaid cuts could cause over 10 million low-income Americans to lose their health coverage.  If this budget were enacted, more elderly Americans could be forced to go from assisted living to living on the streets.  That is immoral and ill-advised.

The Trump cuts also threaten federal funding for public education, medical research, job training and economic development. These cuts are counterproductive and won’t achieve real cost-savings.  In fact, they would impede economic growth.

Families with limited incomes who are trying to make ends meet get hit hardest by the Trump budget.  It takes food, health care, and retirement security away from children, seniors, and people with disabilities while adding funds for an ineffective border wall and tax cuts for millionaires.  It eliminates the LIHEAP energy assistance program, Community Development Block Grants, and many other critical, cost-effective programs that have a positive impact on Rhode Island. 

While our military deserves to be well-funded, cutting diplomacy and foreign aid won’t help prevent war.  These are the wrong priorities for America and don’t reflect our core values.

I will work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to fight these disastrous cuts and enact a more balanced, fiscally responsible budget that focuses on job creation and strengthening the middle-class.”


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