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Trump Draws a Red Line — and North Korea May Have Already Crossed It

Donald Trump's rhetoric on North Korea is a brighter red line than Obama's.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks at a meeting with administration officials on the opioid addiction crisis
President Donald Trump speaks at a meeting with administration officials on the opioid addiction crisis at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Trump draws a brighter red line than Obama ever did — and North Korea might have already crossed it

WASHINGTON — So far, it’s a war of only words. “President Donald Trump on Tuesday promised ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ if the country continues to threaten the United States,” NBC’s Ali Vitali wrote yesterday.

Then North Korea responded by saying it is "seriously reviewing" a plan to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with missiles, per NBC’s Stella Kim and Daniel Arkin.

As our colleague Nicolle Wallace remarked on “Today” this morning, then-candidate Trump constantly attacked Barack Obama for drawing his red line on Syria’s chemical weapons — and for not following through when Syria crossed that line. But Trump, Wallace said, drew a far brighter and more dangerous red line —“fire and fury”— than Obama ever did.

And you could argue that North Korea already crossed that line with its threat against Guam. As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday: “I take exception to the president's comments, because you got to be sure that you can do what you say you're going to do.”

Flashback: Here’s what Trump said about North Korea’s nukes back in 1999

All of this said, Trump’s appearance on “Meet the Press” back in 1999 shows a consistency in making the military option against North Korea more realistic.

RUSSERT: And you say that you, as president, would be willing to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear capability.TRUMP: First, I’d negotiate. I would negotiate like crazy. And I’d make sure that we tried to get the best deal possible... Now, if that negotiation doesn’t work, you’d better solve the problem now than solve it later.RUSSERT: The former general of the Air Force, Merrill McPeak, the former secretary of defense, Les Aspin, said you could not launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea because the nuclear fallout could be devastating to the Asian peninsula.TRUMP: I’m not talking about — I’m not talking about us using nuclear weapons. I’m saying that they have areas where they’re developing missiles... You give me two names — you’re giving me two names. I don’t know. Do you want to do it in five years when they have warheads all over the place, every one of them pointing to New York City, to Washington and every one of our — is that when you want to do it, or do you want to do something now? You’d better do it now. And if they think you’re serious — I deal with lots of people — if they think you’re serious, they’ll negotiate and it’ll never come to that.

Tillerson dials back Trump's rhetoric

Speaking to reporters as he traveled to Guam, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “I think American’s should sleep well at night, I have no concerns about this particular rhetoric over the last few days."

"I think the president, again — as commander in chief — I think he felt it necessary to issue a very strong statement directly to North Korea, but I think what the president was just reaffirming is that the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack and defend our allies and we will do so, so the American people should sleep well at night.”

Tillerson’s comments suggest that Trump intended to ramp up his rhetoric — but just maybe not going as far as “fire and fury.”

Team Trump vs. McConnell

Remember when we wrote earlier this week how divided Republicans are in the Trump Era? Well, here’s another example: “No Senator, YOU are a WEAK, SPINELESS leader who does not keep his word and you need to Retire!” Fox News’ Sean Hannity tweeted at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last night.

That Hannity rocket was in response to this comment from McConnell yesterday: "Our new president, of course, has not been in this line of work before," he said. "I think he had excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process."

Our question: What does Trump think of McConnell’s remark?

Politico on what Pence making Nick Ayers his chief of staff really means

Politico’s Eliana Johnson: “Ayers’ hire, according to interviews with eight current and former administration officials, was less about a secret campaign to challenge Trump in 2020 and more about helping the vice president — who, at just 58, has a political future ahead of him in the post-Trump era — preserve his future political options, whatever they may be.”

More: “A veteran political operative, Ayers had for months been quietly warning the vice president that Trump’s troubles could cause collateral damage and that he needed to take a more aggressive posture on a range of issues to ensure he enters the post-Trump era on solid ground, according to two White House officials.”

Demography vs. geography: Which party can fix its problem so it can govern?

Yes, Republicans have a demographic problem. And, yes, Democrats have a geographical problem, especially when it comes to Senate races, as David Wasserman writes. Our question: Which political party will have an easier time fixing its problem, so it can actually govern?

Because right now, neither party has enough strength to effectively govern. The GOP’s demographic problem might be disguised in 2018 (given that so many Senate contests take place on red turf), but they won’t be in 2020 (when Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia will be up for grabs).

And the Democrats right now, per Wasserman, will have a hard time getting close to 60 Senate seats — let alone 50 — if they remain a coastal party.

AL-SEN Watch: Trump endorses Luther Strange

Ahead of next week’s special GOP Senate primary in Alabama, President Trump endorsed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange Tuesday night. “Senator Luther Strange has done a great job representing the people of the Great State of Alabama. He has my complete and total endorsement!” Trump tweeted.

As NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald observes, this endorsement is a huge move — especially given how this three-man GOP race (featuring Strange, Rep. Mo Brooks and Roy Moore) has turned into a contest of who supports Trump more in this conservative state.

Alabama Republicans, Seitz-Wald adds, had been told weeks ago that the White House would stay out of this contest. So something changed. And the endorsement comes as another new poll shows Moore in a strong position to make the runoff election next week, with Strange and Brooks battling for the other slot.

Democrats haven’t put themselves in a strong position if lightning strikes in Alabama

If Roy Moore SOMEHOW wins the GOP race in Alabama, you could make a reasonable argument that Democrats would have a shot in the general election. The problem: They don’t really have a top-tier candidate in the race.

As NBC’s Seitz-Wald writes, the Dem leading the race in the polls is Robert Kennedy, Jr. — obviously benefiting from the fact that he shares a name with the famous Kennedy clan (he’s no relation).

Meanwhile, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., endorsed former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who seems to be the stronger Dem in this contest.