Trump team messages mixed on North Korea
Trump, Mattis tout supremacy; Tillerson quells rhetoric.
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.
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.