Will the Pentagon obey its commander-in-chief if he launches a war of choice?
President Trump threatened to unleash overwhelming military force on North Korea, when asked to respond to the country's latest provocations after the United Nations Security Council adopted a new round of sanctions.
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," the president said Tuesday. "They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. He has been very threatening -- beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before."
Trump's comments come against a backdrop of media reports, such as the Washington Post's on Tuesday, stating that intelligence analysts are saying the North Koreans have the technical capacity to place a nuclear warhead atop a missile whose range can reach the western United States.
For many Americans, Trump's remarks play on their darkest fears about his presidency -- that a confrontation between a bully president and a bully North Korean dictator could lead to nuclear catastrophe.
Trump's threat represents a line in the sand akin to the one his predecessor drew with Syria for its use of poison gas. President Obama ultimately did not follow through with military action, a tack that drew feverish criticism from the Republican nominee throughout the 2016 election.
In recent days, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been meeting with his counterparts in Asia and seeking to lower the temperature in the region by forging a collective response to North Korea's ongoing nuclear weapons and missile programs.
As CNN reported, on Monday North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho blamed the U.S. for the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, saying his country's "possession of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles is a legitimate option for self-defense in the face of a clear and real nuclear threat posed by the U.S."
"We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table," Ri said, adding that North Korea would "teach the U.S. a severe lesson" if it used military force against North Korea.
Trump's comments came during a "working vacation" at a New Jersey golf course, where he was hosting an event focused on the domestic opioid addiction crisis. It is not clear if his remarks were coordinated with the rest of his foreign policy team.
Right-wing factions in Washington have encouraged Trump to take more assertive postures in the world's hotspots, from Iran to North Korea. It appears that some people in these circles have been leaking intelligence assessments to the Washington Post and press, in part fanning the Trump-North Korea confrontation.
Where this goes next is anyone's guess, as both the American president and the North Korean dictator appear incapable of backing down. It's not clear whether the U.S. military would obey a presidential order to attack North Korea.
The nuclear issue is not a new one. Past administrations have talked loudly, but done little more than push for U.N. sanctions while urging China, North Korea's neighbor and ally, to pressure the country into deescalating.