It's been clear for a long time now that trying to suss out some kind of grand strategy when interpreting Donald Trump tweets is usually a waste of time. The president wakes up early in the morning and watches a lot of cable news, fulminates about the illegitimacy of his election and the many investigations swirling around his administration, and vents. We all know this, and in theory might have done well to become numb to it all, 17 months in. Still, we find it hard not to pay attention—and even, if we let our guard down, react emotionally—when the most powerful person on the planet says scary things that seem to have little grounding in reality.
On Sunday, Trump was at it again. His target: Iran, the longtime US adversary he's often used as a punching bag and point of contrast with his predecessor, whose administration struck a deal with the country to scale back its nuclear program in return for relaxed economic sanctions. Trump bailed on that deal this spring, despite a good amount of evidence Iran was complying with it. But this time, just to spice things up a bit more than usual, the president leaned on his shift key:
Unsettling as it might be, Trump's broadside actually didn't come completely out of nowhere. Rouhani, the relatively moderate president of the country who was in power when the nuclear deal was signed, had just warned the United States in a speech that "war with Iran is the mother of all wars." That warning, in turn, appears to have been sparked by Trump's stated policy of ramping up new sanctions on Iran's already-troubled economy, and the specific concern that Tehran's exports might be impeded even though several US allies have remained on board with the 2015 deal.
But while the tweet may actually have been vaguely consistent with the Trump administration's general hawkishness toward Iran—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech harshly condemning the country's leadership, also on Sunday—it's hard not to be suspicious of the timing. If nothing else, the president's latest odd provocation was consistent with his (so-far effective) general approach: when things get bad, scare the hell out of as many people as possible.
After all, the past week seemed like one Trump might like to forget as quickly as possible. Last Monday, he gave a bizarre press conference alongside Vladimir Putin, a love-fest that only fed longtime speculation he might secretly be under Moscow's control or at least nefarious influence. Many Republicans quickly called him out for suggesting he found Putin as credible as US intelligence agencies when it came to Russian hacking of the 2016 election. Of course, none of them are actually going to do anything to punish the president for undermining his own national-security apparatus and giving Moscow a big propaganda win. But the president still had to engage in awkward damage control that mostly involved a weird argument about a double negative.
Then, on Friday, the New York Times reported that Trump's erstwhile consigliere Michael Cohen had secretly recorded a conversation the duo had about payments to hush Karen McDougal, the former Playboy model with whom the president allegedly had an affair after his youngest son was born. Cohen faces a slew of potential federal charges—he has yet to be formally indicted—and while it initially seemed like he might be willing to take one for the team here, rather than cooperate with prosecutors, the latest tea leaves point toward Cohen being open to striking a deal and flipping on his old boss.
So it's at least possible Trump's latest broadside was just him trying to scare the hell out of the American public—and press—in hopes of steering the conversation in a new direction. Chaos theory, as we've taken to calling it, has often been the best way to make sense of this presidency. Or maybe, as some observers have already suggested, this is just Trump's latest North Korea-style gambit: shoot from the hip (on Twitter), terrify large swaths of the international community, and then strike some kind of unenforceable deal after a grand summit that includes lots of photo ops. Or, assuming this is actually part of a longer campaign of hostility toward Iran that manifests itself in the real world, maybe the president really does want a war or something resembling one. He did just hire notorious George W. Bush-era hawk John Bolton as his top national security aide, and a war might help him shore up support and survive the midterm elections—and maybe even win a second term in 2020. Hey, it worked for Bush!
Then again, maybe we're overthinking here. Trump is an angry man with a vindictive streak. The animating principle of his presidency is to undo what Barack Obama did, and picking on Iran represents one of the clearest ways to do that. After his predecessor gave a speech last week calling for renewed international cooperation and warning of the perils of strongmen, Trump sent out a tweet on Sunday that summed up his own reactionary movement in just a few dozen characters of male id. Ascribing some kind of political motive for one of his outbursts is too generous at this point—when he goes nuts, whether about the Russia probe (as he did on Sunday and again on Monday) or a foreign adversary, he's probably not doing it because he has a plan. He's doing it because he has feelings.
Meanwhile, if you're one of the millions of Americans hoping all of this deranged behavior might cause Trump actual political peril, don't get too excited: The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, published Sunday, showed Trump's approval numbers inching higher than ever.
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