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Trump officials brief lawmakers on North Korea

Trump officials brief lawmakers on North Korea
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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 mulls sending warships through Taiwan Strait amid China tensions Overnight Defense: US, South Korea cancel another military exercise | Dozen sailors injured in chopper crash on aircraft carrier | Navy vet charged with sending toxic letters US, South Korea cancel another military exercise MORE, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Trump administration rigging the game, and your retirement fund could be the loser Haley’s exit sends shockwaves through Washington MORE and Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHillicon Valley: Intel chief wants tech, government to work more closely | Facebook doesn't believe foreign state behind hack | New net neutrality lawsuit | Reddit creates 'war room' to fight misinformation Hillicon Valley: Russia-linked hackers hit Eastern European companies | Twitter shares data on influence campaigns | Dems blast Trump over China interference claims | Saudi crisis tests Silicon Valley | Apple to let customers download their data Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Senators seek US intel on journalist's disappearance | Army discharged over 500 immigrant recruits in one year | Watchdog knocks admiral over handling of sexual harassment case 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.

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“What they said makes a lot of sense, but it is directly contradictory to everything the president says,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyGOP lawmaker demands ‘immediate recall’ of acting US ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP 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) HaleyTrump prefers woman for UN post, interviewing 5 candidates Mary Kissel expected to join State Department Scarborough predicts Trump will ‘cash out’ and not run in 2020 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 CorkerThe Memo: Trump in a corner on Saudi Arabia Corker: US must determine responsibility in Saudi journalist's death Dem senator calls for US action after 'preposterous' Saudi explanation 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 CardinGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Dem senator: Trump accepts Saudi denials because he is 'enamored' with dictators Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP 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 SmithHillicon Valley: Russia-linked hackers hit Eastern European companies | Twitter shares data on influence campaigns | Dems blast Trump over China interference claims | Saudi crisis tests Silicon Valley | Apple to let customers download their data Dems blast Trump for 'conflating' Chinese, Russian election interference claims On The Money: McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' | Trump calls Fed his 'biggest threat' | US to open trade talks with Japan, EU, UK 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