Trump stokes confusion with pledge to halt Korean war games

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGillibrand urges opposition to Kavanaugh: Fight for abortion rights 'is now or never' Trump claims tariffs on foreign nations will rescue US steel industry: report Bannon announces pro-Trump movie, operation team ahead of midterms: report MORE spurred confusion and consternation among lawmakers and foreign allies on Tuesday when he announced that the U.S. would be "stopping war games” on the Korean peninsula amid ongoing discussions with North Korea about denuclearization.

The pledge on the exercises, which the U.S. conducts alongside South Korea, appeared to catch officials off guard at home and abroad, and contributed to criticism from some lawmakers that the president conceded too much to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without securing anything substantial in return.

Vice President Pence was dispatched to Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon to brief Republicans in the House and Senate on the Singapore summit and quell concerns about the joint exercises.

Pence told lawmakers that semiannual war games would cease, contingent upon North Korea following through on efforts to denuclearize. However, Pence added that “regular readiness training” would continue, an administration official said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The distinction between the two types of drills is subtle. Twice a year, the U.S. and South Korea typically hold "war games," in which thousands of troops from each country assemble for military drills. Readiness training occurs fairly regularly, with troops gathered in smaller numbers.

Pence's explanation caused some initial confusion, as Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBusinesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill Senate GOP campaign arm asking Trump to endorse McSally in Arizona: report When it comes to drone tech, wildfire officials need the rights tools for the job MORE (R-Colo.) said that military exercises would continue.

Gardner later clarified that Pence said "while this readiness training and exchanges will occur, war games will not."

North Korea regards the large-scale exercises as acts of aggression.

The U.S. and South Korea earlier this year had agreed to delay a joint exercise that was scheduled to take place during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang amid an initial thaw in relations with North Korea.

Trump met with Kim on Tuesday in Singapore in the first ever meeting between leaders of the U.S. and North Korea. After hours of meetings, the two signed a document that provided unspecified security assurances to Kim in exchange for an agreement to denuclearize the Korean peninsula. The document lacked details on a timeline or nature of denuclearization, however.

As part of the deal, Trump said large-scale joint military drills will stop "unless and until” negotiations go poorly, he said Tuesday.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Bolton heading to Geneva for Putin summit follow up | Pentagon spokeswoman under investigation | Trump statement on defense bill objects to Russia, Gitmo measures Pentagon spokeswoman investigated for misusing staff: report Hundreds gather in Yemen to mourn children killed in Saudi-led coalition airstrike MORE and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford were made aware of the decision before Trump's announcement.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for U.S. forces in South Korea said they had not received "updated guidance." As a result, a large-scale exercise remained scheduled for the fall.

South Korea's response, however, indicated that Trump's announcement came as a surprise. A spokesman for the presidential Blue House said officials needed to "find out the precise meaning or intentions" of Trump’s remarks.

Trump spoke with South Korean President Moon Jae-in the day before his meeting with Kim, but appears not to have disclosed his intention to halt the military exercises.

Trump explained at a press conference in Singapore that suspending certain military exercises would be a cost-saving measure, and a gesture of goodwill as the U.S. aims to keep North Korea at the table.

“The amount of money that we spend on that is incredible, and South Korea contributes, but not a hundred percent,” Trump said. "Under the circumstances that we are negotiating a very comprehensive, complete deal, I think it's inappropriate to be having war games."

“Number one, we save money," he continued. "A lot. And number two, it really is something I think [North Korea] very much appreciated.”

But some lawmakers, including multiple Republicans, disapproved of the concession, with most of the unease coming before Pence arrived on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstSenators introduce bill to change process to levy national security tariffs Overnight Defense: Pompeo spars with senators at hearing | Trump, Putin meeting won't happen until next year | Pentagon was caught off guard by White House on Syria Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland MORE (R-Iowa), who chairs an Armed Services subcommittee, called the decision unwise, noting the U.S. and South Korea have conducted military exercises "for years."

“I would just ask the president, why do we need to suspend them?" she said. "They are legal.”

GOP Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said he was both "troubled" and "surprised" by Trump's announcement. 

“The coordination with South Korean military is absolutely critical,” Perdue said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerElection Countdown: GOP worries House majority endangered by top of ticket | Dems make history in Tuesday's primaries | Parties fight for Puerto Rican vote in Florida | GOP lawmakers plan 'Freedom Tour' Senate Democrats should stop playing politics on Kavanaugh Montana GOP Senate hopeful touts Trump's support in new ad MORE (D-N.Y.) echoed those concerns, saying he believes Trump gave up the exercises up for the “mere hope” that North Korea will end its nuclear program.

Some Republicans expressed cautious optimism that the strategy would lead to long-term success in negotiations.

"Training will continue, but the joint exercises are to convey a message to North Korea that you'll lose a war between North Korea, South Korea and the United States," Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOn The Money: Turkey slaps more tariffs on US goods | Businesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill | Senate turns to toughest 'minibus' yet Businesses fear blowback from Russia sanctions bill White House staff offered discounts at Trump's NJ golf club: report MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters.

"I'm willing to give some breathing space, see if we can find a deal that would be good to the world, including North Korea and the United States," he added.

—Rebecca Kheel contributed