Senators get North Korea briefing in unusual WH visit

Senators piled into buses Wednesday for a rare trip to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House for a closed-door briefing on North Korea.

The meeting comes as President Trump nears his 100th day in office with few legislative accomplishments. It also marks the first time the president has met with the full Senate since his joint address in February.

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Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinProposed bipartisan kidney legislation takes on kidney disease epidemic in America Lawmakers raise security concerns about China building NYC subway cars House votes to boost retirement savings MORE (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the trip across Pennsylvania Avenue marked an “unusual setting.”

“In my congressional career, there’s never been a similar type of meeting held at the White House,” he told reporters. “[But] I don’t want to read too much into this.”

Top administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHillicon Valley: Tim Cook visits White House | House hearing grapples with deepfake threat | Bill, Melinda Gates launch lobbying group | Tech turns to K-Street in antitrust fight | Lawsuit poses major threat to T-Mobile, Sprint merger Hillicon Valley: Tim Cook visits White House | House hearing grapples with deepfake threat | Bill, Melinda Gates launch lobbying group | Tech turns to K-Street in antitrust fight | Lawsuit poses major threat to T-Mobile, Sprint merger House Intel to take first major deep dive into threat of 'deepfakes' MORE, briefed the senators. Trump briefly stopped by the meeting, which had originally been expected to take place at the Capitol.

“He welcomed senators to the White House. It was encouraging to see virtually every senator there, both Democrats and Republicans, and it was a long and detailed briefing,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senator introduces bill to hold online platforms liable for political bias GOP lawmaker delays House for second week GOP lawmaker delays House for second week MORE (R-Texas) said after the meeting.

The administration has pledged to take a hard line with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un amid escalating tensions with the isolated country over its nuclear program after a failed missile launch last week.

In an apparent show of force, the U.S. submarine USS Michigan arrived in South Korea this week. Tillerson is expected to chair a special meeting on North Korea at the United Nations Security Council on Friday.

Senators said after the meeting that they expected the administration to step up pressure on North Korea, including pressing China and others in the region to take a tougher stance against the country.

“I don’t want to get into the details of the briefing itself, but I think it’s clear that they are going to take more steps, and steps to pressure China as well as others in the region, to get the results we need, which is peaceful denuclearization,” Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerKoch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner Koch political arm endorses Colorado Sen. Gardner Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate MORE (R-Colo.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said.

Cruz added that he was “cautiously optimistic that we are seeing early signs that China is helping and cooperating and reining in North Korea. ... Time will tell.”

The administration has signaled that it is eyeing increased financial sanctions against North Korea in an effort to force its leaders to the negotiating table.

A senior administration official said Wednesday that the administration could label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that would entail a wave of financial penalties for Pyongyang.

“What you’ll see soon is using the economic dimension of national power, as well as the military preparations that are underway,” the official said, cautioning that the economic options would “take time to develop.”

Gardner, who declined to discuss the details of the meeting, said he supports adding North Korea back to the State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list, a designation it lost in 2008. But Gardner said he had “no indication yet from the administration” on whether that would happen.

“The next question for the administration is the pressure that we can bear on North Korea and those in the region to make sure they are also pressuring the North Korean regime to denuclearize,” he said.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion MORE (D-Del.) said that the terrorism designation wasn’t discussed during the meeting.

Trump ordered a review of North Korea policy after assuming office, arguing that the country poses a serious threat to the United States. Tillerson, Coats and Defense Secretary James Mattis portrayed the meeting as part of updating members on the results of the review.

“The president’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners,” they said in a joint statement.

Administration officials made the trip across Pennsylvania Avenue on Wednesday to brief all House lawmakers at the Capitol. Multiple lawmakers declined to comment coming out of the closed-door meeting.  

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said there needs to be a “credible military deterrent” and praised the administration for briefing lawmakers. 

“I think there is tremendous confidence in the administration officials in key positions. They knew what they were talking about. They were coordinated,” he said. 

He added that officials gave “more details” on their strategy but he did not offer specifics of what was discussed in the meeting. 

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said there was "some discussion" of adding North Korea back onto the State Department's terror list but "no timeline" for a decision.   

He added that Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence communications director to leave White House White House crowd sings 'Happy Birthday' to Trump Trump won't say if he'd endorse Pence in 2024 MORE gave introductory remarks at the closed-door meeting, but left before questions began.

Trump faced criticism from Democrats ahead of the meeting, who accused the president of ramping up rhetoric on North Korea without a strategy for how to deal with its nuclear program.

“I really don’t understand how this president’s game plan [will] get North Korea to change its calculation, because that needs to be our objective,” Cardin told reporters.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Shanahan exit shocks Washington | Pentagon left rudderless | Lawmakers want answers on Mideast troop deployment | Senate could vote on Saudi arms deal this week | Pompeo says Trump doesn't want war with Iran Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions Senators demand Trump explain decision to deploy troops amid Iran tensions MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, added that Trump’s “escalation of rhetoric” isn’t helpful and is currently “making more enemies than friends.”

“[The solution] is not, frankly, going to be through a U.S.-led invasion of North Korea,” he told CNN. “It is going to be through a diplomatic effort led by the United States and perhaps China that applies tough sanctions on North Korea.”

Jordan Fabian and Ellen Mitchell contributed.