BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Senior American officials sent mixed signals on North Korea on Wednesday as President Trump’s “fire and fury” warning rattled allies and adversaries alike, a sign of his administration’s deep divisions as the outcast state once again threatened to wage nuclear war on the United States.
The president’s advisers calibrated his dire warning to North Korea with statements that, if not directly contradictory, emphasized different points. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson stressed diplomacy and sought to reassure Americans, while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said North Korea risked “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” if it did not “stand down.”
North Korea gave no indication that it would do so. In a statement late Wednesday, the North Korean military dismissed Trump’s warning Tuesday as a “load of nonsense” and said only “absolute force” would work on someone so “bereft of reason.” The military threatened to “turn the US mainland into the theater of a nuclear war” and added that any American strike on North Korean missile and nuclear targets would be “mercilessly repelled.”
The statement also said that the North Korean military would finalize a plan by mid-August to fire four midrange missiles into the waters off the Pacific island of Guam, a US territory used as a strategic base, to create a “historic enveloping fire.”
Earlier in the day, Tillerson, returning from a trip to Asia, said he saw no reason to believe that war was imminent despite the heated exchange of warnings between Trump and Pyongyang.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Tillerson said as his plane stopped on the way back to the United States to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target with an attack.
Hours after Tillerson sought to ease tensions, Mattis issued a written statement that, while not as colorful as Trump’s comments on Tuesday, was just as firm.
“While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed, and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth,” Mattis said. Using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he added: “The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
The two secretaries made their comments a day after Trump warned of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The stark words, evoking the horror of a nuclear exchange between the world’s most dominant superpower and the upstart outlaw nation, sent ripples throughout the United States and Asia.
Now it turns out that Trump’s threatening words were entirely improvised, according to several people with direct knowledge of what unfolded. In discussions with advisers beforehand, he had not run the specific language by them, though he had talked over possible responses in a general way.
He delivered his “fire and fury” threat on Tuesday with arms folded, jaw set, and eyes flitting on what appeared to be a single page of talking points set before him on the conference table at his New Jersey golf resort.
The piece of paper, as it turned out, was a fact sheet on the opioid crisis he had come to talk about, and his ominous warning to Pyongyang was entirely improvised.
The inflammatory words quickly escalated the confrontation to a new, alarming level and were followed shortly by new threats from North Korea.
But the president’s ad-libbed threat reflected an evolving and still unsettled approach to one of the most dangerous hot spots in the world.
“I don’t think there is a single policy at work,” said Ellen L. Frost, of the East-West Center, a Honolulu-based research organization. “I’m not even sure that Trump cares about having a consistent policy on any subject.”
Instead, she said, the president’s threat was a play to demonstrate toughness to his political base “followed by more nuanced cleanup operations on the part of Tillerson and Mattis, who are walking a political tightrope.”
Trump remained out of public sight Wednesday at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is spending most of a 17-day working vacation.
But he posted a link on Twitter to a news report on his threat, and followed up by boasting that he had ordered the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal.
“Hopefully we will never have to use this power,” he wrote, “but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
The president’s aides are divided on North Korea, as on other issues, with national security veterans like Mattis and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, on one side and Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and his allies on the other.
While McMaster and others consider North Korea a preeminent threat that requires a tough response, Bannon and others in the nationalist wing argue that it is really just a subset of the administration’s conflict with China and that Trump should not give more prominence to an unstable rogue operator like Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader.
Bannon’s allies in the alt-right media and activist groups have been waging a ferocious public attack against McMaster, characterizing him as soft on issues like Iran, Israel, and terrorism and promoting a hashtag #FireMcMaster.
But in the North Korea debate, like a similar one over Afghanistan, Bannon has been arguing against what his side considers the excessively militant approach of the “war party” of McMaster.
Neither camp advocated language like “fire and fury,” according to the people involved. Among those taken by surprise, they said, was John Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who has just taken over as White House chief of staff.
The president had been told about a Washington Post story on North Korea’s progress in miniaturizing nuclear warheads so that they could fit on top of a ballistic missile, and was in a bellicose mood, according to a person who spoke with him before he made the statement.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
But according to his advisers, Trump has used that phrase repeatedly in private discussions about North Korea.Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.