Fallout: Trump's 'fire and fury' sends officials scrambling

U.S. officials scrambled Wednesday to clarify the administration’s position on North Korea after President Trump warned that “fire and fury” would come to Pyongyang if it threatens the United States. 

The White House pushed back on reports that Trump’s national security advisers were caught off guard by Trump’s statement, but acknowledged the president’s exact phrasing was not planned.

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Regulation: Trump adviser affirms plans to leave climate deal | FDA to study new cigarette warning labels | DOJ investigating Equifax stock sales Top US security official targeted in Cuba Embassy covert attacks: report Trump adviser tells foreign officials no change on Paris climate deal MORE said Trump was trying to send a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in words he would understand, but also downplayed the possibility of armed conflict.

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Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Mattis hints at US military options for North Korea Mattis: US to send 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan MORE delivered a different message, matching Trump’s fiery rhetoric in a statement that warned of the United States' military superiority.

“The [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Mattis said in a statement Wednesday. “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people. “

But even as Mattis backed Trump in tone, he made a crucial distinction. 

While Trump said U.S. action would come if North Korea made “any more threats to the United States,” Mattis said it would be Kim’s actions, not his words, that would elicit a military response.

“The big picture is that Tillerson and Mattis both tried to do a corrective on the irresponsible language that came out of that opioid meeting,” said Carl Baker, director of programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Pacific Forum. 

On Tuesday, after reports that North Korea has surpassed a significant milestone in its nuclear weapons quest by miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile, Trump told a group of reporters at the top of a meeting about opioid addiction that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.”

“He has been very threatening beyond a normal state,” Trump said at his New Jersey golf club. “And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Hours later, North Korean state media carried a statement from the country’s military that said it was considering a plan to strike a U.S. military base on Guam.

The threat was typical of North Korea's bellicose rhetoric, but it took on new weight after Trump appeared to a draw a red line at threats alone.

On Wednesday, Tillerson, who was on his way to Guam after a visit to Asia, said there was no imminent threat from North Korea and that Americans should “sleep well at night.”

Trump, Tillerson said, was just speaking Kim’s language.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un can understand because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson told reporters.

“I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S.'s 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.”

Meanwhile, amid reports that members of Trump’s national security team were unaware of what Trump planned to say Tuesday, White House spokespeople stressed that the president had consulted with top advisers. 

Trump discussed the “tone and strength” of his message with senior national security advisers before his remarks, but “the words were his own,” according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

While some accused the administration of mixed messaging on North Korea, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert insisted her boss, the White House and Defense Department were all “speaking with one voice.”

CSIS's Baker, a retired Air Force officer who served as an international political-military affairs officer for the United Nations Military Armistice Commission and as a political and economic intelligence analyst for U.S. Forces Korea, said that the rhetoric from Trump plays into Kim’s narrative of a U.S. “hostile policy” toward North Korea.

Having Tillerson and Mattis seem to take a different line from Trump does create an “uncertain atmosphere,” Baker said, but helps to reinforce that the United States will abide by international norms and not launch a pre-emptive strike. 

“The narrative that we’re trying to create is we follow the international norms,” he said. “That’s what is useful of Mattis and Tillerson’s response.”

Richard Klass, a retired Air Force colonel now on the board of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said Wednesday morning mixed messages from the White House are an indication that the administration still lacks key personnel and a rigorous interagency review process.

“There’s no process for which to examine a problem like North Korea and come up with options and alternatives,” Klass said. “The important point is that there is no Trump administration, and that’s why we have to handle this based on what side of the bed Trump got up on in the morning.”

Lawrence Krauss, chairman of the board of sponsors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which sets the famed Doomsday Clock, said he assumed the statement from Mattis had been drafted after significant thought and discussion.

Krauss said he worries, though, that Tillerson has already been too defanged to have any effect on policy.

“Had Tillerson been a strong secretary of State who already demonstrated leadership in diplomacy, it might be easier to take what he says seriously,” Krauss said. “It’s important and good that some people are trying to defuse it, but people have already recognized that Tillerson is not taking the lead.”