The Obama administration asked former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonWe must act now and pass the American Health Care Act Trump's message: Russia First or America First? Senate Democrats should grill Judge Gorsuch on antitrust. Here's how. 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 ObamaSpicer: 'Doesn't pass the smell test' that WH gave info to intel chairman Poll: Trump controversies make him more popular among supporters Cory Booker trolls Trump with old healthcare tweet 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 GoreOvernight Tech: Trump's tech budget - Cyber gets boost; cuts for NASA climate programs | FTC faces changes under Trump | Trump to meet with Bill Gates Trump's NASA budget cuts earth, climate science programs Obamas sign with agency for speaking gigs 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 McCainBiden: 'McCain is right: Need select committee' for Russia Top general: Trump State Department cuts would hurt military's efforts against Russia Fortune's 'Greatest Leaders' list includes Samantha Bee, snubs Trump 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.