Trump officials brief lawmakers on North Korea

Trump officials brief lawmakers on North Korea
© Getty Images

House and Senate lawmakers conferred with top Trump administration officials Wednesday on North Korea days after it carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.

Lawmakers emerged from briefings with Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisUS military indefinitely suspends two training exercises with South Korea Overnight Defense: Defense spending bill amendments target hot-button issues | Space Force already facing hurdles | Senators voice 'deep' concerns at using military lawyers on immigration cases Senators 'deeply troubled' military lawyers being used for immigration cases MORE, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump cannot blame policy of separating children on Obama North Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report North America wins 2026 bid to host World Cup after lobbying from Trump MORE and Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsGOP senator places hold on Trump counterintelligence nominee Civil liberties groups press Trump administration on NSA call record collection Trump’s ‘Syraqistan’ strategy is a success — and a failure MORE saying the briefers used a more measured tone than President Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” if North Korea continues its threats.

But for some Democrats that difference was concerning.


“What they said makes a lot of sense, but it is directly contradictory to everything the president says,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Governors criticize Trump move on pre-existing conditions Bipartisan group of senators asks FDA to examine drug shortages Trump faces Father’s Day pleas to end separations of migrant families MORE (D-Conn.) argued.

“They’re laying out a relatively sensible strategy that is not consistent with what the president says the strategy is. They’re talking about a diplomacy-first strategy that has been clearly rejected by their boss, and it leaves the entire world scratching their head," he continued. 

“There is an unbelievable disconnect between the people in that room and their boss, and that freaks the hell out of me,” he said.

North Korea on Sunday carried out its first nuclear test since Trump took office, claiming it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The test drew widespread international condemnation.

On Sunday, Mattis warned of a “massive military response” if North Korea threatens the United States or its allies, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyIsrael scales back work with UN Human Rights Council after US exit On The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Trump floats tariffs on European cars | Nikki Haley slams UN report on US poverty | Will tax law help GOP? It's a mystery Nikki Haley: 'Ridiculous' for UN to analyze poverty in America MORE warned that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “begging for war.”

Trump, meanwhile, floated the idea on Twitter of cutting off all trade with countries that do business with North Korea and has tweeted that “talking is not the answer” when it comes to North Korea. He also tweeted he would allow allies South Korea and Japan to purchase more “sophisticated” military equipment.

Several lawmakers said there was no discussion at the briefings Wednesday of what specific weapons the president meant by his tweet on selling weapons to Japan and South Korea, but said that both countries in the past have expressed a desire to upgrade the weapons they have.

Democrats also said it’s clear the administration is looking to at least renegotiate a five-year-old trade pact with South Korea, which they said would be folly to do now with the threat from North Korea hanging over South Korea and the United States.

“I can’t think of a worse time to have a trade dispute with South Korea,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said, while acknowledging that the deal does need to be renegotiated at some point.

Asked whether there was a disconnect between Trump and the officials at the briefing, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerOn The Money — Sponsored by Prudential — Senators hammers Ross on Trump tariffs | EU levies tariffs on US goods | Senate rejects Trump plan to claw back spending Senators hammer Ross over Trump tariffs GOP senator demands details on 'damaging' tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.) sidestepped, but said those briefing were “very professional.”

“Let me answer the question by saying each of them was very professional, very measured in what they’re saying and understands the stakes that are at play here,” Corker said. “There was nothing over-the-top, no over-the-top rhetoric.”

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinCommunity development impact remains clear with NMTC post-tax reform Dem sen: ‘Difficult to understand’ Trump’s treatment of allies Dem sen: No military option in North Korea ‘without extreme risks’ MORE (Md.), the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said it was “helpful” to hear from officials “who have really been working on this issue.”

“Of course, President Trump says different things at different times, they’re not always consistent,” he added. “So there’s always that concern as to whether we have a consistent policy or not.”

Some Democrats, asked about the likelihood of military action, appeared reassured by the lack of “bluster” during the briefings.

“I did not hear bluster in that room. I did not hear the word the ‘fire;’ I did not hear the word ‘fury,’ ” Sherman said.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, likewise said “there was no bluster” during the briefing.

“We’ve got to be very, very careful what we say,” he said. “There was no bluster in there. There’s bluster we hear from the president from time to time when talking like we’re cutting off trade with countries like China or cutting of the trade agreement with a country like South Korea. That doesn’t make much sense to me.”

Engel added that lawmakers appeared more united than he’s seen at other briefings.

“I think what we saw at this briefing, much more so than at most other briefings I’ve been to, is unanimity members of Congress both Democrats and Republicans not playing politics with anything like this but really taking this matter very, very seriously,” he said.

Asked whether he was assuaged at the North Korea situation after the briefing, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithObstacles to Trump's 'Space Force' could keep proposal grounded for now Dem congresswoman: Imprisoned asylum-seeking women have no idea where their children are Overnight Defense: Latest on scrapped Korea summit | North Korea still open to talks | Pentagon says no change in military posture | House passes 6B defense bill | Senate version advances MORE (D-Wash.) said “not really.”

“Obviously, Secretary Tillerson and the others there were more diplomatic in the way they put things, but the message wasn’t dramatically different,” he said.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said there was a greater sense of urgency and concern in Wednesday’s briefing compared to the North Korea briefing that Congress received in April.

Asked if he’s worried the current path is leading to war, Thornberry said “of course,” but added that “it depends on the North Koreans.”

“I’m concerned that Kim Jong Un wants to finish what his grandfather started,” Thornberry said, referring to the Korean War. “And if he’s determined to do that, it is going to be dangerous.”

– Ellen Mitchell contributed