BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — As President Trump amplified his bellicose warning to North Korea on Wednesday, senior administration officials rushed to reassure a suddenly jittery world that they stood behind his sentiments, if not necessarily his language.
What many outside the White House — and some on the inside — interpreted as an undisciplined presidential eruption threatening nuclear conflict was just Trump’s way of expressing an agreed policy of pressure on Pyongyang, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
“The words were his own. The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand,” Sanders said of Trump’s threat on Tuesday to meet North Korean provocations with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” At the State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert agreed, insisting that “we are all singing from the same hymn book.”
But U.S. allies and a number of Trump aides and lawmakers instead saw a disturbing dissonance, and lack of coordination, as the administration confronted its most potentially consequential foreign policy crisis to date.
As North Korea’s military on Wednesday expanded its threat to strike Guam, warning of “simultaneous fire of four” intermediate-range ballistic missiles and describing Trump’s statements as “a load of nonsense,” top U.S. national security officials publicly struggled to straddle a line between backing the president and trying to calm the upheaval he had generated.
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, returning from a trip to Asia to build support for diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang, said it was a “pretty good week” for global unity.
Asked about Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks as he flew from Malaysia to a refueling stop in Guam early Wednesday, Tillerson responded by directing attention toward Saturday’s “unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution strengthening sanctions against North Korea, with China and Russia joining us.”
In warning North Korea, Tillerson said, Trump was merely speaking in language that its leader, Kim Jong Un, “can understand.”
“I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself . . . and its allies,” he told reporters aboard his aircraft. “Americans should sleep well at night [and] have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.” Among its more provocative statements, Pyongyang threatened Tuesday to direct its ballistic missiles toward Guam, a U.S. territory with a population of about 160,000.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, traveling on the West Coast, struck a similarly sober middle ground. “While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means,” Mattis said in a statement released by the Pentagon, “it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.”
“The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates,” he said. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, is North Korea’s official name.
Not everyone inside the administration was taken aback by Trump’s remarks. One of the president’s favored spokesmen, White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, ratcheted up the brinkmanship, saying in a television interview Wednesday morning that the situation “is analogous to the Cuban missile crisis.”
Appearing on “Fox & Friends,” the Trump-friendly morning show on Fox News Channel that the president often watches, Gorka said: “We are not just a superpower. We were a superpower. We are now a hyperpower. Nobody in the world, especially not North Korea, comes close to challenging our military capabilities, whether they’re conventional, whether they’re nuclear or whether they’re Special Forces.”
Gorka continued with a direct threat to the North Koreans: “So this message is very clear: Don’t test this White House, Pyongyang.”
Meanwhile, some key U.S. allies and international partners pushed back on the escalating rhetoric between Trump and North Korea, calling for greater efforts to open diplomatic talks.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry called on “all parties for moderation” and said that “saber-rattling won’t help.” The spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign policy chief agreed that “a lasting peace and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must be achieved through peaceful means” and said “that excludes military action.”
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Bill English called Trump’s comments “not helpful” in a standoff that was already “very tense.” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that responding to North Korea’s threats with “fire and fury” would have “catastrophic consequences” worldwide.
South Korea called the situation “very serious” but said it did not believe a crisis was imminent, according to the Yonhap news agency.
Reaction from Congress was mixed, with Democratic lawmakers almost universally condemning Trump’s language as erratic and dangerous.
“President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric undermines our global credibility and is unlikely to de-escalate the situation,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said. “We need fewer fiery words and bombastic tweets from the president and his cable TV surrogates, and more effort to work with our international partners to expand missile defense and deterrence.”
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A few Republicans argued that it could be a strategic move to eliminate the North Korean threat.
“President Trump has drawn a red line,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said on CBS. “He’s not going to contain the threat; he’s going to stop the threat.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said on CNN: “Why not give it a shot to say: ‘You talk about fire and fury, you say you are going to bury the United States in fire and fury. Hey, we got some fire and fury for you, too, if you want to play that game.’ ”
But some senior White House officials and Trump allies, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer frank assessments, expressed concern that his comments were more off-the cuff than strategic and bypassed the normal policy vetting and coordination process that other presidents have used to keep them on message.
Two senior White House officials said that as Pyongyang intensified its own rhetoric in recent days after the U.N. vote, Trump discussed with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and other advisers a strategy to escalate his response and deliver a more aggressive and overt challenge to North Korea. The message Trump delivered Tuesday afternoon — neither scripted nor formally vetted by his top advisers, according to officials with knowledge of the matter — was “unexpected, but it wasn’t surprising,” one of the officials said.
Still, the conflicting messages from the administration in the span of 24 hours gave the impression of “people just stumbling around in the dark,” said one senior Republican close to the White House.
“This is one of the most important things a president of the United States has ever done,” this Republican said. “We’re talking about the possibility of war here — and war with a pretty unstable, supposedly nuclear power. You want to make sure your rhetoric goes through a process.”
Some Trump supporters argued that diplomacy and measured responses have brought only failure, as North Korea has expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in recent years. “But it’s hard to make the case that going toe-to-toe with Kim Jong Un in a hyperbole contest is going to make the kind of difference in the equation that we’re looking for,” said one North Korean expert who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations.
“You can’t out-crazy Kim Jong Un,” said the expert. “Moreover, if we and the North Koreans are exchanging a barrage of threats, it’s hard to see a good outcome. To make good on those threats would be devastating and to back down from those threats is humiliating.”
The president followed up his Tuesday comments with remarks Wednesday morning on Twitter. His “first order as President,” he tweeted, “was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.” The president added, “Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
Nuclear experts noted, however, that while former president Barack Obama launched a multiyear modernization effort, Trump’s order merely directed a “nuclear posture review” that is not yet complete, and that there have been no substantive changes in the arsenal.
During a meeting on the opioid crisis Tuesday, Trump responded to a question from reporters about North Korea’s nuclear provocations and said they would be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Another senior White House official voiced frustration that Trump’s use of the phrase “fire and fury” had been interpreted as a depiction of nuclear strikes and said his words should not necessarily be taken literally.
“People on TV who know nothing about North Korea are claiming this is nuclear escalation,” this official said. “ ‘Fire and fury’ doesn’t always mean nuclear. It can mean any number of things. It is as if people see him [Trump] as an unhinged madman.”
Asked whether Trump came up with the phrase “fire and fury” on his own, the official replied, “Absolutely.”
DeYoung reported from Washington. Carol Morello at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, Anne Gearen and Elise Viebeck in Washington, and Rick Noack in London contributed to this report.