The Obama administration asked former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonRace still matters in presidential pardons Poll: Trump's pre-inauguration approval rating half as high as Obama's Poll: Obama leaves office with 58 percent favorability MORE to travel to North Korea meet with leader Kim Jong-Il to negotiate the release of two American journalists who were imprisoned for entering the country illegally, according to a congressional source briefed on the matter.
This counters what the White House said earlier in the day, when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs
characterized Clinton’s trip as a “private mission” and declined
"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission," Gibbs said in a statement.
But a former Clinton administration official told The Hill that a
former president traveling to North Korea surely had Obama
behind his mission.
"You don't deploy somebody of that magnitude without an understanding of what's going on," said Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at RAND Corp. who served as NATO ambassador under Clinton. "Clinton didn't show up in an airplane and just land; that's not something you do.
"The former president wouldn't go unless he had the backing of the president and there was a clear understanding that the journalists would be released," Hunter said. "The risk of embarrassment is too great if he came back empty-handed."
Risking criticism for engaging with North Korea soon after it undertook
a series of belligerent actions, President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPentagon head opposed Manning commutation: reports Trump transition on Africa: Asking the wrong questions Trump puts pressure on GOP Congress MORE took a
calculated gamble and won Tuesday afternoon when North Korean officials
announced they would pardon the two journalists.
North Korean media reported Tuesday that Kim had pardoned Americans Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were convicted of entering the country illegally and "hostile acts." The two journalists were working for former Vice President Al GoreAl GoreTrump puts conflict-of-interest controversy to bed Ivanka Trump will not take job in father's White House: report Biden leaves his mark on VP desk MORE's Current TV when they were arrested March 17 near China's border with North Korea. Lee and Ling were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.
Republicans criticized Obama during the 2008 campaign for pledging to personally engage rogue leaders such as Kim and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I think it sends the wrong message to continue to talk to them and treat them as a responsible country when they haven’t acted like a responsible country,” Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the senior Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said before the release of the two journalists was announced.
Bond said sending Clinton was a “half-way” compromise to Obama sitting down with Kim himself, describing Clinton’s trip as “half a bad step instead of a full bad step."
Other Republicans took a softer tack.
Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Cybersecurity: Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's sentence | A malware mystery Overnight Defense: Obama commutes Manning's sentence | Boeing sees 'progress' on Air Force One costs | McCain's 0B defense budget McCain: Leak of Trump dossier ‘totally wrong’ MORE (Ariz.), who as the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee criticized Obama on the campaign trail for expressing willingness to meet with rogue leaders, declined to question the president Tuesday.
“All I know is that President Clinton is trying to secure the release of two American citizens and I hope his mission succeeds,” McCain said before news broke that the journalists had received pardons.
State Department spokesman Darby Holladay declined to comment on Clinton’s trip.
Bridget Johnson contributed to this report.