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The Trump cleanup patrol just had its biggest job yet

Dana Milbank on

WASHINGTON -- I had dreams of fire and fury like the world has never seen. But now I will sleep well, because Rex Tillerson told me I should.

There is no "imminent threat" from North Korea, the secretary of state said Wednesday. "The American people should sleep well at night."

It was the latest and largest cleanup effort undertaken by President Trump's aides since this administration took power. Their unorthodox message to an anxious nation and a panicky world: Don't take seriously what the president of the United States says.

On Tuesday, Trump delivered remarks about North Korea -- words we now know to have been off the cuff -- that pushed the world toward a nuclear standoff last seen in the Cuban missile crisis: "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States." If it does make threats, the president said, "they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."

Many noted that the wording echoed Harry Truman's warning at the time of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. But then came Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil chairman, to assure us that there is nothing to see. It has become a familiar exercise: walking back, cleaning up and outright contradicting crazy things uttered by the man with the nuclear codes.

Early on, Trump announced that he had undertaken "a military operation" to get "really bad dudes out of this country, and at a rate that nobody's ever seen before."

The U.S. military is rounding up immigrants? Mexican officials freaked out. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, now White House chief of staff, drew cleanup duty: "No -- repeat, no -- use of military force in immigration operations. None," he said.

Trump, during his visit to Brussels, shocked allies and caught his aides by surprise when he struck from his speech to NATO the usual commitment to the alliance's collective defense -- this, after calling NATO "obsolete." Days later, Vice President Pence reassured jittery allies: "Our commitment is unwavering. ... An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us."

Trump, appearing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, upended the long-standing U.S. commitment to a "two-state" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I am looking at two-state, and one-state," he said. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was put on walk-back patrol the next day. "We absolutely support a two-state solution," she said.

The cleanup patrol has a domestic operation, too. When Trump, after a bipartisan budget deal was reached, tweeted the notion that "our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September," White House budget director Mick Mulvaney was hustled out to contain the damage: "We've averted a shutdown. ... That's the story now, not what might happen in September."

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