The Trump administration can’t seem to agree on North Korea

The president has advocated for "fire and fury," but his advisers are offering conflicting takes.

President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be coordinating with his administration as tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program continue to spiral.

On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that North Korea is now making missile-ready nuclear weapons, citing U.S. intelligence officials as the source of the information. Trump, who spoke at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey later in the day weighed in on the news by threatening the country.

“They will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” Trump said.

That approach was seemingly tempered by other officials, namely Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. On Tuesday, North Korean officials also threatened to strike Guam, a sovereign U.S. territory home to both a strategic airfield and naval station—and 160,000 residents. Tillerson, who found himself in Guam while his plane refueled, sought to calm anxiety as he spoke with reporters.

“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,”  Tillerson said, insisting that North Korea posed no “imminent threat” and that “nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

He went on to argue Trump’s approach was intentional. “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 offered. “I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself and its allies, and I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”

While previous administrations have demanded that North Korea give up its nuclear efforts before international talks can begin, that approach has shifted under Tillerson, who has removed denuclearization as a prerequisite and insisted that regime change is not a U.S. goal. (He did argue on Monday, however, that North Korea should stop its missile launches as a precondition to begin talks, though he didn’t specify for how long.) In that vein, Tillerson’s comments Tuesday seemed to briefly counter Trump’s fiery rhetoric.

But on Wednesday, the president appeared to double down on his initial assertions. “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “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!”

Notably, the modernization of U.S. nuclear power actually began under former President Barack Obama. Under Trump no major changes have been made, although the president has been pushing for an increase in nuclear weapons funding, while cutting money for nuclear security and nonproliferation.

Trump also retweeted an article from Fox News noting that U.S. Air Force jets were stepping up training, ensuring their immediate preparation for armed conflict.

Other members of the administration also offered conflicting takes on Wednesday. National security adviser Sebastian Gorka told Fox that the situation was both comparable to the Cuban missile crisis and required full support for Trump’s decisions.

“During the Cuban missile crisis, we stood behind JFK,” Gorka said. “This is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis. We need to come together.”

But Gorka also seemed to offer a different approach altogether at other moments. “We have to be clear here, whether it is any other nation of this kind has illegitimate regime, whether Venezuela or North Korea,” he said. “We want to be friends with the people of these nations. We’re not against North Koreans. We’re not against Venezuelans. It is regimes that are the problem, illegitimate, dictatorial regimes that don’t allow dissent…that are the issue. What we do with those regimes, right now, we want the escalation to end.”

The comments represented a reversal for Gorka. Hours before Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, the White House adviser told Fox Business that North Korea’s recent threats were mostly “bluster.”

Offering a different approach to the issue entirely, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has stayed mostly quiet since Trump’s comments. That’s notable in large part because Haley, who helped push for a fresh round of sanctions on North Korea, spent Tuesday dealing with another North Korea story—after Trump retweeted a Fox News report based on leaked classified intelligence detailing the country’s cruise missile movements.  When asked to comment, Haley said that she “can’t talk about anything that’s classified.”

“It’s incredibly dangerous when things go out to the press like that,” she added.

This is not the first time that Trump has struck a different tone from members of his staff on international crises. In June, Tillerson’s efforts to mediate a dispute between Qatar and several Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, was undermined and seemingly contradicted by statements from Trump on Twitter. Similar disagreements on the Iranian nuclear agreement, Syria’s civil war, and relations with Russia have also served as divisive points for the administration.