WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump's aides knew he planned to deliver a tough message to North Korea on Tuesday (Aug 8), but they did not expect a threat that rivalled the apocalyptic taunts often used by his target, Mr Kim Jong Un.
The president's language, which aides say he had used in private, escalated the long-running dispute with North Korea to a new level and left members of the Trump administration scrambling on Wednesday to explain what he meant.
But the process, or lack of one, that led to the ad-libbed comments embodied Mr Trump's overall approach to foreign policy, an improvisational style that often leaves his national security team in the dark about what he is going to say or do, according to several people with direct knowledge of how the episode unfolded.
The President was in a confrontational mood on Tuesday afternoon after The Washington Post reported that Pyongyang had developed nuclear warheads small enough to be placed on ballistic missiles.
His team assumed that he would be asked about North Korea during a scheduled media appearance tied to a meeting the president was planning to hold at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, about the opioid epidemic.
Mr Trump's aides braced as he began to speak at the opioid event - his arms folded, jaw set and eyes flitting on what appeared to be a single page of talking points set before him on the conference table where he was sitting. The piece of paper, as it turned out, was a fact sheet on the opioid crisis.
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," Mr Trump told reporters in remarks aired on television and broadcast around the globe. "They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
Ms Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Mr Trump's national security team was "well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery".
After his comments, Mr Trump's national security team huddled to figure out how to proceed. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson became the obvious choice to calm the waters, which he did during a refuelling stop in Guam, the same island threatened by North Korea.
Mr Tillerson told reporters that "Americans should sleep well at night", and that nothing indicated that relations with North Korea had "dramatically changed in the last 24 hours".