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Trump stokes confusion with pledge to halt Korean war games

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate GOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Gorbachev calls Trump's withdrawal from arms treaty 'a mistake' 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.

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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 GardnerElection Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue Democrats must end mob rule GOP senators praise Haley as 'powerful' and 'unafraid' 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 MattisLawmakers press Trump to keep Mattis US 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 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 ErnstDemocrats won’t let Kavanaugh debate die Overnight Defense: Trump ramps up pressure on Iran, international courts | Arrest made after suspicious letters sent to Trump, Mattis | US to offer NATO cyber capabilities Admiral defends record after coming under investigation in 'Fat Leonard' scandal 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 SchumerManchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' 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 GrahamLawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi's death The Memo: Trump in a corner on Saudi Arabia Trump should stick to his guns and close failed South Carolina nuclear MOX project 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