Did an early morning TV programme inspire Donald Trump’s missile strike tweet?

As always with Trump’s morning tweetstorms, the chain of custody for the idea is not difficult to track. 

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President Trump threatened Russia directly with “new and ‘smart’” missile strikes against targets in Syria, apparently in direct response to a segment on his favourite morning TV show. Then, 45 minutes later, in a dizzying volte-face, he called for Russia to “stop the arms race?” in a second tweet that also appeared to offer Russia, which is currently suffering a financial crisis after the US imposed sanctions, economic aid.

All of that before 8am in Washington DC.

The first tweet was an extremely aggressive exercise in sabre-rattling which directly threatened military action by the US in Syria. “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’”, the president said.

It is currently unclear why he placed the word “smart” in quotation marks.

The tweet was in response to comments made by the Russian envoy to Lebanon on state TV earlier in the day, though it would be considerably more accurate to say that it was in response to a segment on Trump’s favourite morning TV show, Fox & Friends, about the appearance.

As always with Trump’s morning Fox & Friends tweetstorms, the chain of custody for the idea is not difficult to track. Host Brian Kilmeade introduced the segment at 6:15am, saying: “this morning the Russian ambassador hopped on Lebanese TV and said ‘if there is a strike by the Americans then missiles will be downed and we will even go to the source of those rockets. So they’re saying ‘don’t do it, and if you do do it, we’re coming after you’.”

Trump’s tweet was sent just over half an hour later.

But the morning was not over. One can only imagine the rush of a group of the president’s more sober-minded minders – those few of them who remain – who must have seen the post and then run in to try to prevent the looming conflict.

The result was that less than 45 minutes later, as the world was just digesting the news that a military clash with Russia seemed imminent, Trump sent another tweet about Russia and Syria which took the complete opposite tone, saying “Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do.” (In fact, Russia’s economy is suffering because of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration just days ago in response to the poison attack in Salisbury.)

The tweet ends, preposterously: “Stop the arms race?”

So, hey, just a president directly and publicly threatening missile strikes against forces backed by the world's second largest nuclear-armed power, based on something he saw on his favourite morning TV show. All in all, a pretty classic Wednesday morning.

It was president Richard Nixon who came up with the so-called “madman theory” of international diplomacy: the idea that if the leader acted irrationally other countries would be scared of provoking them, for fear of what they might do.

But Nixon has nothing on Trump in the “madman” stakes. We now find ourselves trapped like lab rats in a grand and bleakly Quixotic experiment to discover if the theory truly works – though whether or not the president is even aware that’s what he’s doing is another question entirely.

In fact, while America’s journalistic and foreign policy establishment began to try to pick up the pieces – to say nothing of the diplomatic corps of other, increasingly nervous nation states currently watching America with a mixture of morbid curiosity and terror – Trump’s attention had already wandered; his next tweet, sent just before 9am, was devoted to the accusation that special counsel Robert Mueller and the Democrats were “going crazy”.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.