Trump team mes­sages mixed on North Korea

Trump, Mat­tis tout supremacy; Tiller­son quells rhetoric.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Josh Lederman

The pres­i­dent again raised the specter of nu­clear might, while the sec­re­tary of state coun­seled calm.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his top na­tional se­cu­rity aides de­liv­ered con­trast­ing mes­sages Wed­nes­day of alarm and re­as­sur­ance over North Korea’s ex­pand­ing nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties, with the com- mander in chief tout­ing Amer­ica’s atomic suprem- acy a day af­ter threat­en­ing “fire and fury” for the com­mu­nist coun­try.

As in­ter­na­tional alarm es­ca­lated over the still-re­mote pos­si­bil­ity of nu­clear con­fronta­tion, Trump dug in on his threats of mil­i­tary ac­tion and posted video of his ul­ti­ma­tum to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a rare flex­ing of Amer­ica’s own nu­clear might, Trump said his first or­der as pres­i­dent was to “ren­o­vate and mod­ern­ize” an ar­se­nal that is “now far stronger and more pow­er­ful than ever be­fore.”

The sug­ges t ion that Trump has done any­thing to en­hance U.S. nu­clear fire­power was im­me­di­ately dis­puted by ex­perts, who noted no progress un­der Trump’s pres­i­dency. Still, Trump tweeted: “Hope­fully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most pow­er­ful na­tion in the world!”

North Korea’s mil­i­tary re­sponded by call­ing Trump’s threat a “load of non­sense” and said “only ab­so­lute force” can work against Trump.

The tweets did lit­tle to soothe con­cer n s in the United States and be­yond that Trump was help­ing push the stand­off with North Korea into un­charted ter­ri­tory. While the prospect of mil- itary ac­tion by either side ap­pears slim, given the level of dev­as­ta­tion that would en­sue, Trump’s talk Tues­day of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” com- pounded fears of an ac­ci­dent or mis­un­der­stand­ing lead­ing the nu­clear-armed na­tions into con­flict.

This week, an of­fi­cial Ja­panese re­port and a clas­si­fied U.S. in­tel­li­gence doc­u­ment sug­gested that the North was closer to be­ing able to strike the United States with a nu­clear mis­sile than pre­vi­ously be­lieved. The U.S. doc­u­ment said the North had mas­tered the abil­ity to fit a nu­clear war­head on its long-range mis­siles.

Af­ter North Korea is­sued its own warn­ing to the U.S., sug­gest­ing it could at­tack the Amer­i­can ter­ri­tory of Guam, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Til- ler­son sought to calm the sense of cri­sis.

Speak­ing early Wed­nes­day on his way home from Asia, he cred­ited Trump with send- ing a strong mes­sage to the North Korean leader on the “un­ques­tion­able” U.S. abil­ity to de­fend it­self, so as to pre­vent “any mis­cal­cu­la­tion.” Tiller­son in­sisted the U.S. isn’t sig­nal­ing a move to­ward mil- itary ac­tion, while it pur­sues a pol­icy of sanc­tions and iso­la­tion of North Korea.

“Amer­i­cans should sleep well at night,” Tiller­son told re­porters. He added: “Noth­ing that I have seen and noth- ing that I know of would indi- cate that the sit­u­a­tion has dra­mat­i­cally changed in the last 24 hours.”

No sooner had Tiller­son ratch­eted down the rhetoric than De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis ratch­eted it back up. Echo­ing Trump’s mar­tial tone, Mat­tis said North Korea should stand down its nu­clear weapons pro­gram and “cease any con- sider­a­tion of ac­tions that would lead to the end of its regime and the de­struc­tion of its peo­ple.”

It was un­clear how se­ri­ously to take the war talk. Mar­kets weren’t rat­tled by the back-and-forth threats. Trump had no meet­ings on his sched­ule Wed­nes­day. There were no in­di­ca­tions from the Pen­tagon of ur­gent plan­ning or new as­sets be­ing hastily de­ployed to the Pa­cific re­gion. And Tiller­son even made a pre-sched­uled refu- el­ing stop in Guam, the tar­get of the North’s pur­ported mil­i­tary de­signs.

The “fire and fury” proc- lama­tion that Trump de­liv­ered at his New Jersey golf club was his own mes­sage, his spokes­woman said Wed­nes­day. It came af­ter Trump and his chief of staff, re­tired Gen. John Kelly, had been in con­ver­sa­tions with mem­bers of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

“The tone and strength of the mes­sage were dis­cussed be­fore­hand” with ad­vis­ers, White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said. But she said: “The words were his own.”

Trump didn’t men­tion the words “fire and fury” in a con­fer­ence call with ad­vis­ers, ac­cord­ing to two of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sion. And Kelly and the other aides didn’t know he would use such vivid terms, said the of­fi­cials, who weren’t au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly on the mat­ter and de­manded anonymity.

The State Depart­ment said Tiller­son spoke to Trump af­ter he made the com­ment, a con­ver­sa­tion that lasted for about an hour.

North Korea’s mil­i­tary re­sponded by call­ing Trump’s threat a ‘load of non­sense’ and said ‘only ab­so­lute force’ can work against Trump.

VINCENT THIAN / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son in­sisted Wed­nes­day that the U.S. isn’t sig­nal­ing a move to­ward mil­i­tary ac­tion, while it pur­sues a pol­icy of sanc­tions and iso­la­tion of North Korea.

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