Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

U.S. carrier wasn’t nearing N. Korea

- By Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt

WASHINGTON — Just over a week ago, the White House declared that ordering an American aircraft carrier into the Sea of Japan would send a powerful deterrent signal to North Korea and give President Donald Trump more options in responding to the North’s provocativ­e behavior. “We’re sending an armada,” Mr. Trump said to Fox News last Tuesday afternoon.

The problem was that the carrier, the Carl Vinson, and the three other warships in its strike force were that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula.

That left some asking: Was it all a misunderst­anding, or deliberate obfuscatio­n?

White House officials said Tuesday that they had been relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an illtimed announceme­nt of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to a partially erroneous explanatio­n by the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, that the aircraft carrier was “on her way up there” — all of which perpetuate­d the false narrative that

a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea.

By the time the White House was asked about the Carl Vinson, its imminent arrival had been emblazoned on front pages across East Asia, fanning fears that Mr. Trump was considerin­g a pre-emptive military strike. It was portrayed as further evidence of the president’s muscular style days after he ordered a missile strike on Syria that came while he and President Xi Jinping of China chatted over dessert during a meeting in Florida.

With Mr. Trump himself playing up the show of force, Pentagon officials said, rolling back the story became difficult.

The story of the wayward carrier might never have come to light had the Navy not posted a photo online Monday of the Carl Vinson sailing south through the Sunda Strait, which separates the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. It was taken on Saturday, four days after the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, described its mission in the Sea of Japan.

Now, the Carl Vinson is finally on a course for the Korean Peninsula, expected to arrive in the region next week, according to Defense Department officials. White House officials declined to comment on the confusion, referring questions to the Pentagon.

Privately, however, other officials expressed bewilderme­nt that the Pentagon did not correct its timeline, particular­ly given the tensions in the region and the fact that Mr. Spicer, as well as the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, were publicly answering questions about it.

“The ship is now moving north to the Western Pacific,” the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoma­n, Dana White, said Tuesday. “This should have been communicat­ed more clearly at the time.”

The presence of the U.S. carrier strike group, and the threat of a U.S. military strike on North Korea, had weighed heavily on Chinese minds and in the media here.

The news that the ships weren’t where everyone assumed them to be was greeted with some glee in the Chinese media Tuesday.

“Tricked badly!” the Global Times exulted. “None of the U.S. aircraft carriers that South Korea is desperatel­y waiting for has come!”

Meanwhile, some experts saw an elaborate game of “psychologi­cal warfare or bluffing” or “military signaling” from the U.S.

Amid Tuesday’s news of the carrier strike group, top Trump administra­tion officials warned from two continents that North Korea’s latest failed missile launch was a reckless act of provocatio­n and assured allies in Asia that the United States was ready to work to achieve a peaceful denucleari­zation of the Korean Peninsula.

While Mr. Mattis denounced North Korea’s weapons test as he began a Mideast tour, Vice President Mike Pence — when he wasn’t telling business leaders that the U.S. wants “stronger and more balanced bilateral trade relationsh­ips” with countries including Japan and South Korea — in and around Tokyo offered support to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and pledged the Trump administra­tion’s commitment to defending its allies in Asia amid a trip dominated by concerns about North Korea’s nuclear intentions.

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