Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday blamed confusion over a U.S. aircraft carrier and its strike group that officials suggested had been sent to the Korean Peninsula on an effort to be transparent.
“The bottom line is, in our effort to always be open about what we are doing we said that we were going to change the Vinson's upcoming schedule," Mattis told reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “We don't generally give out ships' schedules in advance, but I didn't want to play a game either and say we were not changing a schedule when in fact we had.”
The Navy announcement did not explicitly state the Vinson travel head immediately to the Korean Peninsula, but administration officials later suggested it would.
Mattis told reporters April 11 the Vinson was “on her way up there.”
President Trump himself added to the perception the strike group was speeding toward North Korea when he told Fox Business News on April 12, “We are sending an armada, very powerful.”
But on Tuesday, it was revealed the strike group had not yet started its journey to the peninsula when those comments were made. Photos released by the Navy showed instead that on Saturday it was in the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java and then the Indian Ocean.
After the news spread, U.S. Pacific Command said the Vinson had participated in a previously scheduled training exercise off the northwest coast of Australia and was now headed to the western Pacific as previously ordered.
On Wednesday, Mattis said the Vinson is doing exactly what officials said it would
“The Vinson, as I said on the record, was operating up and down the western Pacific, and we were doing exactly what we said, and that is we are shifting her,” he said. “Instead of continuing in one direction as she pulled out of Singapore, she’s going to continue — part of her cruise down in that region — but she’s on her way up to Korea.
The idea that the Vinson was headed immediately to the Korean Peninsula had both reassured South Korea and Japan, which were wary of potential North Korean provocations, and increased concern that Trump could respond to those actions with military force.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Wednesday denied that administration officials had been misleading in their statements last week.
“We answered the question on what signal it sent,” Spicer said. “I’m not the one who commented on timing.”