Trump stokes confusion with pledge to halt Korean war games

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' 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 GardnerBennet reintroduces bill to ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists GOP warns Graham letter to Pelosi on impeachment could 'backfire' The Hill's Morning Report - Dem debate contenders take aim at Warren 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 MattisMattis responds to Trump criticism: 'I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals' Trump turns Pelosi's 'meltdown' criticism around: 'She is a very sick person' War of words at the White House 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 ErnstGOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Farmers: New Trump ethanol proposal reneged on previous deal Overnight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate 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 SchumerTrump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' Mattis responds to Trump criticism: 'I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals' Democrats vow to push for repeal of other Trump rules after loss on power plant rollback 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 GrahamPelosi, Schumer hit 'flailing' Trump over 'sham ceasefire' deal Pompeo to meet Netanyahu as US alliances questioned Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe 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