But though it’s unusual for all 100 senators to head to the White House grounds at once, Spicer also stressed that the briefing was not initiated by the White House but by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office — a clarification perhaps made to tamp down any speculation that the administration is considering imminent military action in North Korea.
“This is a Senate briefing convened by the majority leader, not a White House briefing. We are just serving as the location. For further questions, I would direct you to the majority leader’s office,” Spicer said.
Tensions with North Korea have risen in recent days preceding and following the country’s failed missile test. One anonymously sourced report from NBC News claimed that the US was considering a preemptive strike against the nation — an action that could initiate a major war in Asia.
But other officials strongly pushed back against the NBC report, telling Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin that it was “wildly wrong” and “extremely dangerous.” And of course, no such strike materialized before the attempted missile test last week.
Indeed, despite the tough-sounding rhetoric from the Trump administration, it’s not clear whether their policy is actually changing all that much. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all began their terms by saying their predecessors’ North Korea policies failed and that a new approach of some kind was necessary.
However, all of them calculated that actual military action was far too risky, because it could well result in massive destruction and loss of life in both North and South Korea. “One war game convened by the Atlantic back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone,” Alex Ward writes.
It’s also worth noting that in contrast to, say, the hours preceding Trump’s Syria strike, there does not appear to be buzz on Capitol Hill that any sort of attack on North Korea is imminent.
So another possible reason for the briefing is that administration officials — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford — will discuss further toughening of economic pressure on North Korea.
And the Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Ed O’Keefe suggest yet another theory, writing that lawmakers and aides are questioning whether the unusual setting means the Trump administration “intends to use the event as a photo op ahead of its 100-day mark,” since these large group briefings with classified information typically take place on Capitol Hill.
In his first annual message to Congress, John Quincy Adams, among the most experienced and intellectually formidable presidents, warned leaders against giving the impression that “we are palsied by the will of our constituents.” In this regard, if in no other, the 45th president resembles the sixth.
Donald Trump’s “Oh, never mind” presidency was produced by voters stung by the contempt they detected directed toward them by the upper crust. Their insurrection has been rewarded by Trump’s swift shedding of campaign commitments, a repudiation so comprehensive and cavalier that he disdains disguising his disdain for his gulled supporters.
The notion that NATO is obsolete? That China is a currency manipulator? That he would eschew humanitarian interventions featuring high explosives? That the Export-Import Bank is mischievous? That Obamacare would be gone “on Day One”? That 11.5 million illegal immigrants would be gone in two years (almost 480,000 a month)? That the national debt would be gone in eight years (reducing about $2.4 trillion a year)? About these and other vows from the man whose supporters said “he tells it like it is,” he now tells them: Never mind.
The president, whose almost Sicilian sense of clan imparts new meaning to the familiar phrase “family values,” embraces daughter Ivanka’s belief that America suffers from an insufficiency of entitlements, a defect she (and he, judging from his address to a joint session of Congress) would rectify with paid family leave. Her brother Eric has said (to Britain’s Telegraph) that he is “sure” that 59 cruise missiles flew because Ivanka said to her father about Syria using chemical weapons, “Listen, this is horrible stuff.”
Although a senior Trump adviser, Stephen Miller, has stipulated that presidential powers to protect the nation “will not be questioned,” still they persist, those impertinent questioners. They do because when candidate Trump’s open-mic-night-at-the-improv rhetoric of quarter-baked promises and vows is carried over into the presidency and foreign policy, there are consequences, especially when his imprecision infects his subordinates.
One cannot erase with an “Oh, never mind” shrug Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement that the “message” foreign leaders should take from the Syrian attack is “if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.” It is not true that the United States will respond, other than rhetorically, to all crossings of those four red lines. If, as Tillerson says, the United States is committed to “holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” the United States is going to need a much bigger military than even the president’s proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending would purchase.
Much more here.
Let’s consider the case of the wrong-way warships.
Last week, North Korea was planning a big celebration in honor of its founder’s birthday. For North Koreans, holiday fun is short on barbecues and high on weaponry. The big parade in Pyongyang featured monster canisters that theoretically contained intercontinental ballistic missiles. It’s possible they were actually empty and that right now, North Korea only has bragging rights in the big-container race.
But its intentions were definitely bad, and the United States was worried there might be a missile launch or an underground nuclear test.
What should Donald Trump do? “We’re sending an armada,” said the president. Possible confrontation? As a concerned citizen, you had to be very worried. North Korea is, in every way, a special and dangerous case. It has a leader who is narcissistic to the point of psychosis, with a celebrity fixation and a very strange haircut.
O.K., maybe not entirely unique.
Trump was talking about bringing in four warships, one of them an aircraft carrier. Was this going to mean real shooting? His critics back home had to decide whether to protest, wave the flag in support or simply stock the fallout shelter. (This would be the fallout shelter you repurposed a couple decades ago as a wine cellar, but lately you’ve been thinking it can work both ways.)
Everybody was talking about the dangers. If North Korea sent up a missile, would the U.S. retaliate? Then what would happen to South Korea and Japan? People debated all the variables. The only thing that did not come up was the possibility that the American flotilla was actually no place near the neighborhood.
Yet, as Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt reported in The Times, at the moment the president was announcing his armada, the warships in question were actually going in the opposite direction, en route to a destination 3,500 miles away, where they were to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy.
Whoops. The official response was that the administration was sending an armada eventually.
“We said that it was heading there. And it was heading there, it is heading there,” said press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday. Under this theory, the president could have responded to North Korea’s latest saber-rattling by announcing that he was going to China, since chances are he’ll get there someday. Sooner or later. Especially if the Chinese can come up with a gold coach like the queen of England’s.
Poor Sean Spicer. Every day a new official fantasy to defend. Tonight the president will go to bed and dream that he’s actually the true heir to the principality of Liechtenstein. Tomorrow Spicer will come into the pressroom on skis and announce we’re declaring war on Switzerland.
* * *
We’re really not asking for a lot, but can’t the president at least be clear about the direction our ships are headed? Concerned citizenry has already adapted to the idea that half the things Trump said during the campaign have now been retracted. NATO is great, the Chinese don’t manipulate their currency. And the Export-Import bank is, well .…
Pop Quiz: Which best describes your feelings about the president’s attitude toward the Export-Import Bank?
A) Happy when he denounced it during the campaign.
B) Glad when he said it was a good thing after all.
C) Worried when he nominated an Export-Import Bank head who seems to hate it.
D) I don’t care about the Export-Import Bank! What about all those bombs?
O.K., O.K. In the end, the North Koreans did test a missile but it exploded right after launch. It is possible this was due to a long-running American cybersabotage program. If so, Trump couldn’t have mentioned it as a matter of security. Otherwise he’d certainly have been out there expressing his gratitude to the Obama administration for having done so much work on it. Hehehehe.
When it comes to Trump and foreign affairs, the big problem is that you want to be fair, but you don’t want to encourage him. A lot of Americans liked the idea of responding to a chemical attack in Syria by bombing a Syrian air base. But if the president thought it was popular, wouldn’t he get carried away? It’s like praising a 4-year-old for coloring a picture, and the next thing you know he’s got his crayons out, heading for the white sofa.
Anna Fifield, reporting for The Washington Post:
The Trump administration gave its clearest signal yet that it would consider taking military action against North Korea, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Friday that “all options are on the table” to deter the threat from Pyongyang.
Tensions are running high in northeast Asia, with North Korea making observable progress toward its goal of building a missile that could reach the United States mainland and China incensed over South Korea’s decision to deploy an American antimissile battery.
Tillerson’s remarks, ruling out diplomatic talks and leaving the door open to military action, will fuel fears in the region that the Trump administration is seriously considering what are euphemistically called “kinetic” options in Washington.
“Let me be very clear: the policy of strategic patience has ended,” Tillerson said at a news conference in Seoul with Yun Byung-se, the South Korean foreign minister. He was referring to the Obama administration policy of trying to wait North Korea out, hoping that sanctions would prove so crippling that Pyongyang would have no choice but to return to de-nuclearization negotiations.
“We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table,” Tillerson said, adding that while the U.S. did not want military conflict, threats “would be met with an appropriate response.”
“If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table,” he said.
In a surprise turn of events, Yun appeared to suggest that South Korea would support military options.
“We have various policy methods available,” said Yun, who is unlikely to remain in his position for much longer as elections for a new government will be held in early May. “If imposing diplomatic pressure is a building, military deterrence would be one of the pillars of this building. We plan to have all relevant nations work together more closely than in the past and make sure that North Korea, feeling pain for its wrongdoings, changes its strategy,” he said.
President Trump and his top aides coordinated their response to North Korea’s missile test on Saturday night in full view of diners at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida — a remarkable public display of presidential activity that is almost always conducted in highly secure settings.
The scene — of aides huddled over their computers and the president on his cellphone at his club’s terrace — was captured by a club member dining not far away and published in pictures on his Facebook account. The images also show Mr. Trump conferring with his guest at the resort, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister.
Shortly before the club member, Richard DeAgazio, who joined Mr. Trump’s club recently, took the pictures, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off its eastern coast. Mr. DeAgazio posted his photographs to Facebook as the two leaders and their staff members reviewed documents and worked on their laptops, using cellphones as flashlights.
“HOLY MOLY !!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan,” Mr. DeAgazio wrote later on Facebook, describing how the two leaders “conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference.”
“Wow…..the center of the action!!!” Mr. DeAgazio wrote in the post. The scene at Mar-a-Lago was first reported by CNN. Mr. DeAgazio did not respond to a call seeking comment.
The fact that the national security incident played out in public view drew swift condemnation from Democrats, who said it was irresponsible for Mr. Trump not to have moved his discussion to a more private location.
“There’s no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater,” Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader in the House, wrote onTwitter.
Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tom Udall of New Mexico, Democrats who have called for Mr. Trump’s club to release a list of its members, denounced the president on Monday for discussing the North Korean missile launch in the open.
“This is America’s foreign policy, not this week’s episode of ‘Saturday Night Live,’” the senators said in a statement. “We urge our Republican colleagues to start taking this administration’s rash and unprofessional conduct seriously before there are consequences we all regret.”
Republican senators also seemed puzzled by the president’s actions. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said, “Usually that’s not a place where you do that kind of thing.” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, could barely find words. “Can’t make it up,” he said.
Michael J. Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director under President Barack Obama, said, “Every president with whom I have worked would have gone to a private room to have what was potentially a classified discussion.”
Mr. Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. — known casually as the Winter White House — for a get-to-know-you weekend with Mr. Abe, including time with the prime minister on the golf course and dinners with their spouses.
Around 8 p.m. on Saturday, the two leaders appeared for a brief photo-op together at the main entrance to the resort. Mr. Trump ignored a shouted question from a reporter about the North Korean missile test, which had occurred about an hour earlier.
The president and his guests dined at the resort’s restaurant during the next two hours, eventually providing the flurry of national security activity that Mr. DeAgazio captured.
Around 10:30 p.m., Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe made short statements to a small group of reporters brought to a separate room in the resort.
Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, told reporters at the White House that Mr. Trump and Mr. Abe had not reviewed classified material on the resort’s patio.
Mr. Spicer said the president was briefed about North Korea in a secure location on the property. It is against the law for officials to be handling classified materials in a nonsecure setting.
Mr. Spicer said Mr. Trump and his aides were reviewing “news conference logistics” about the North Korean missile test.
But national security veterans of past administrations still expressed surprise that Mr. Trump and his staff would not have excused themselves to be able to have candid conversations about the North Korean situation and to review sensitive or classified documents.
Discussions about how to respond to international incidents involving adversaries like North Korea are almost always conducted in places that have high-tech protections against eavesdropping, like the White House Situation Room.
When presidents are away from the White House, they often conduct important business in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, a location that can be made temporarily impervious to eavesdropping.
Much more here.