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Trump’s threat to North Korea contrasts with calm reassurances of other administration officials

August 9, 2017

President Trump’s bellicose threat to North Korea that its nuclear provocations would be met with “fire and fury” was spontaneous, neither scripted nor formally vetted by his top advisers, according to officials with knowledge of the matter.

But as Pyongyang intensified its confrontation with Washington in recent days, Trump discussed with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and other advisers a strategy to escalate his rhetoric and deliver a more aggressive and overt challenge to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, said two senior White House officials. The message Trump delivered Tuesday afternoon “was unexpected, but it wasn’t surprising,” one of the officials said.

As lawmakers and experts reacted with alarm and exasperation to a presidential statement they viewed as dangerously inflammatory because it painted a picture of possible nuclear strikes, senior administration officials Wednesday followed Trump’s message with contradictory statements of their own.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis spoke with calming sobriety, seeking to maintain pressure on North Korea but reassure Americans and U.S. allies that the nations were not on the brink of nuclear conflict.

Tillerson, during a refueling stop in Guam as he returned from an extended trip to East Asia, said that “the American people should sleep well at night.” He defended Trump’s forceful warning to North Korea to stop threatening the United States but attempted to dismiss concerns that Guam is in any imminent danger from Pyongyang’s missiles.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said in an interview with two pool reporters.

Mattis said the United States and its allies around the world are prepared to defend their countries from any attack, and he called on North Korea to “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

“While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth,” Mattis said. “The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

Meanwhile, one of Trump’s favored spokesmen, White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, ratcheted up the brinkmanship with North Korea, saying in a television interview Wednesday morning that the situation “is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis.”

Appearing on “Fox Friends,” the Trump-friendly morning show on Fox News Channel that the president often watches, Gorka said: “We are not just a superpower. We were a superpower. We are now a hyperpower. Nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close to challenging our military capabilities, whether they’re conventional, whether they’re nuclear or whether they’re Special Forces.”

Gorka continued with a direct threat to the North Koreans: “So this message is very clear: Don’t test this White House, Pyongyang.”

Trump made similar comments Wednesday morning on Twitter, asserting that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.” The president added, “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!”

On a working vacation at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Trump has been receiving regular intelligence briefings from his national security team, and he has held meetings with Kelly and other advisers about the threat from North Korea.

Trump made clear to Kelly that he wanted to adopt a more aggressive tone with North Korea, according to several senior White House officials.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters Wednesday afternoon: “General Kelly and others on the NSC team were well aware of the tone of the statement of the president prior to delivery. The words were his own. The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand. They were clear the president was going to respond to North Korea’s threats following the sanctions with a strong message in no uncertain terms.”

During a briefing on the opioid crisis Tuesday, Trump responded to a question from the press corps about North Korea’s nuclear provocations and said they would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

A senior White House official voiced frustration that Trump’s use of the phrase “fire and fury” had been interpreted as a depiction of nuclear strikes. This official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a sensitive matter, said Trump’s words should not necessarily be taken literally.

“People on TV who know nothing about North Korea are claiming this is nuclear escalation,” this official said. “ ‘Fire and fury’ doesn’t always mean nuclear. It can mean any number of things. It is as if people see him [Trump] as an unhinged madman.”

Asked whether Trump came up with the phrase “fire and fury” on his own, this official replied, “Absolutely.”

Tillerson, who has spent the past several days in East Asia building support for new economic sanctions approved Sunday by the U.N. Security Council, has until now taken the lead role on North Korea policy.

The State Department, and White House officials in Washington, appeared taken aback by Trump’s remarks, which sent policy in a direction sharply different from the measured diplomacy Tillerson has been pursuing.

Just hours before the president spoke Tuesday, a senior administration official involved in the policy described it as twofold, with an offer for direct U.S. negotiations with Pyongyang undergirded by possible further escalation in sanctions.

While there has been no direct contact between Pyongyang and Washington since North Korea’s most recent missile tests, “if the North Koreans were ready to talk on terms that we would consider acceptable, it wouldn’t be hard for them to find us,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on closed-door policymaking.

The current crisis began to escalate last month, when North Korea launched two tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. shores. After the Security Council passed the U.S.-drafted sanctions resolution Sunday — in a unanimous vote that included China and Russia — Pyongyang responded with threatening statements. Although they were not substantially unlike previous tirades from Pyongyang, they apparently provoked Trump to retaliate in kind.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Carol Morello at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam contributed to this report.

Article source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-threat-to-north-korea-contrasts-with-calm-reassurances-of-other-administration-officials/2017/08/09/e38427ec-7d18-11e7-83c7-5bd5460f0d7e_story.html

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