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“80 sets of invisible eyes rolling”: senators unimpressed by White House North Korea brief

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Wednesday afternoon, nearly the entire membership of the US Senate packed into a bus and headed to the White House grounds for an unprecedented classified briefing from top Trump administration officials on North Korea policy. Such a huge meeting, on such a volatile topic, had people wondering — was the United States about to announce some risky new policy on North Korea? Perhaps some kind of scary military escalation, or even a preemptive strike on a nuclear-armed power?

Nope. According to senators who attended the briefing, it was a whole lot of nothing.

Chris Murphy, a Democrat who’s made foreign policy a major priority in his career, told CNN there was “no revelation” about North Korea policy in the briefing. An anonymous Republican said the briefing failed to clarify even the most basic questions (like how they plan on dealing with North Korea’s work on missiles that could hit the US):

Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he wasn’t sure if the meeting was worth his time:

An anonymous Democratic senator mocked the president’s appearance at the briefing, particularly his habit of using “ridiculous” adjectives:

So clearly, this briefing wasn’t an announcement that the US was about to bomb North Korea or do anything radically new. It seems, instead, that the briefing was about optics — an opportunity to make it look like Trump is taking a significant new stance on North Korea when in reality, they’re basically doing the exact same thing the Obama administration did.

The Trump policy on North Korea appears to be ... nothing

Since the briefing was classified, we don’t know exactly what Trump and his top officials told the assembled senators. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats released a joint statement after the briefing summarizing what they said — which contains a key paragraph for understanding what happened there:

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.

There are two notable things about this:

  1. It does not mention military options once — a pretty suggestive statement that the Trump administration has ruled out any kind of military action for the foreseeable future. While the statement also said that “we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies,” that’s in line with past language from other administrations that want to maintain deterrence against North Korean provocation. It doesn’t look like any kind of military action is imminent.
  2. It contains no specific policy shifts at all, and describes a broad-brush policy — “tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies” — that also could have described the Obama administration’s policy, which it called “strategic patience,” precisely.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing the Trump team could do. North Korea wonks have some ideas for new ways to put pressure on Pyongyang and/or make negotiations work better.

But as far as anyone can tell, none of these new ideas were proposed at the meeting. If they were, somehow not one of the nearly 100 assembled senators has thus far mentioned it, and they would in fact seem to be actively covering it up by suggesting they learned nothing at the meeting in comments to reporters.

All of the swirling North Korea rumors — like the dubious NBC report in mid-April that Trump was considering a military strike — appear to have been just that: rumors. The truth seems to be that the Trump administration has no new policy, or at least not one that even a single senator thought was significant enough to bother mentioning.

Watch: The North Korean nuclear threat, explained

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