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):
GOP senator on N. Korea briefing: Briefing lacked "even straight answers on what the policy is regarding N. Korea and its testing of ICBMs"— Ed O'Keefe (@edatpost) April 26, 2017
Bob Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he wasn’t sure if the meeting was worth his time:
When I asked Chairman Corker if the North Korea briefing trip to the White House was worthwhile, he told me "I'm not sure"— Niels Lesniewski (@nielslesniewski) April 26, 2017
An anonymous Democratic senator mocked the president’s appearance at the briefing, particularly his habit of using “ridiculous” adjectives:
Dem senator says Trump briefly showed at NoKo briefing, did his "ridiculous adjective" bit.— Jonathan Martin (@jmartNYT) April 26, 2017
"about 80 sets of invisible eyes rolling"
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:
- 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.
- 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.