WASHINGTON — It’s been a week of walk backs from the White House after President Trump took questions from reporters at his golf club in New Jersey about some sensitive foreign policy issues.
On Friday, a National Security Council official told Yahoo News that Trump was “being sarcastic” the day before in saying he was “very thankful” Putin had ordered a reduction of hundreds of employees, including diplomats and support staff, in U.S. missions in Russia.
“The president was being sarcastic. We take seriously Moscow’s unwarranted actions against our personnel and diplomatic properties, and we are exploring our response options,” the official said, echoing remarks by White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
The official also praised American diplomatic personnel in Russia and blamed the Kremlin’s “interference in our election and treatment of our diplomats” for starting a “negative trend in our relationship.”
“Our diplomats at our embassy in Moscow and three consulates serve with great distinction and courage,” the official said, adding, “Along with our Russian employees, they face harassment and intimidation as they seek to manage a troubled bilateral relationship and deepen our ties with the Russian people. The president and the secretary of state value their tremendous work and salute them.”
It was the second time in a week that Trump’s comments required a cleanup effort from administration officials. Trump previously raised the possibility of military action against North Korea during one of his working-vacation question and answer sessions, a position that led to multiple clarifications from State Department officials.
Alexander Vershbow, who served as ambassador to Russia and to South Korea under President George W. Bush, told Yahoo News that the messages Trump sent from his golf club seemed “incoherent” and could cause serious risks. Vershbow, who also served as deputy secretary general of NATO and an assistant secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, said clear communications are particularly important in foreign relations.
“In diplomacy, but also in the kind of signaling that you have to conduct against a potential military adversary, you’ve got to be very precise on what your red lines are, and that certainly hasn’t been the case,” Vershbow said of Trump.
Officials from both the National Security Council and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment from Yahoo News asking if they believe the president is articulating a clear posture toward North Korea and Moscow.
Trump addressed the diplomats’ expulsion from Russia in an availability with reporters on Thursday as he continued a working vacation at his Garden State golf course. The president said there was “no real reason” for the diplomats to return to Russia and expressed gratitude to Putin for helping him save money. Trump’s 2018 budget proposed slashing 29 percent from the State Department.
“I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down our payroll, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll,” Trump said.
The president’s comments immediately drew the attention and scrutiny that has surrounded every aspect of his relationship with Russia in light of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion the Kremlin interfered in last year’s election to aid Trump. There are currently multiple investigations into whether Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russia. Trump has repeatedly expressed doubts Russia intervened in the election and, when he signed off on the sanctions bill that provoked Putin’s order, he issued a statement calling them “seriously flawed” and criticizing Congress for limiting his ability to negotiate with Moscow.
“It’s nice to belatedly hear that it was in jest or being sarcastic, but it didn’t sound that way on delivery,” Vershbow said of Trump’s comments, adding, “But we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one.”
Trump addressed the expulsion of diplomats in Russia during one of two availabilities he held with reporters in New Jersey on Thursday. The president has not had an extensive interaction with the press corps at the White House since February. An official told Politico that Trump made the decision to take questions on Thursday and did not give his staff much advance notice.
Trump was similarly loquacious on Tuesday when he engaged reporters and vowed to respond to North Korean threats against the U.S. with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” That comment provoked a flurry of contradictory responses from the Trump administration.
Aides later described the president’s remarks on North Korea as “unplanned and spontaneous.” Some officials and experts who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity suggested Trump’s impromptu escalation of rhetoric toward North Korea was unhelpful and could hamper diplomatic efforts.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained the president’s comments by saying Trump was speaking in language the North Korean regime “would understand” since diplomatic efforts haven’t been successful thus far. But Tillerson also seemed to temper Trump’s fiery remarks when he said the American people “should sleep well at night” without fear of a potential military conflict. On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert further said there was no contradiction between Tillerson’s comments and Trump’s.
”We are all singing from the same hymnbook,” Nauert said.
However, in a subsequent interview on Thursday, deputy assistant to the president Sebastian Gorka cast doubt on that assertion. Gorka suggested Tillerson was not qualified to discuss the administration’s position on potential military action in North Korea.
“You should listen to the president; the idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Gorka said.
After Gorka’s comment made headlines, he suggested he was being misconstrued. Gorka told Fox News he was admonishing reporters from the “fake news-industrial complex“ for trying “to force our chief diplomat … to give details of military options” that are outside of his purview. Gorka did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News.
Trump further complicated the administration’s position on North Korea during one of his two press availabilities on Thursday when he said his “fire and fury” remark may not have been “tough enough.” When asked what could be tougher than “fire and fury,” the president was coy.
“We’ll see,” Trump said.
Vershbow, the veteran diplomat, said Trump’s comments seem to “open the door to possible military action just in response to North Korean rhetorical threats” or a test or missile launch in the vicinity of the American territory of Guam. He noted that this posture contradicts what other American officials have said, that the U.S. would not take preemptive military action against North Korea. The danger, Vershbow said, is that Trump’s comments do not give the North Korean regime clear “red lines.”
“The language certainly is open to many interpretations, and that’s risky when you’re dealing with a very insecure regime in Pyongyang,” Vershbow said.
Vershbow said some of the experts on North Korean policy he communicates with are “alarmed” by the situation while others see a “glimmer of strategy” from Trump. Vershbow allowed that Trump’s comments could be a strategic attempt to apply “political pressure” on North Korea to de-escalate its rhetoric and nuclear missile testing program. He also suggested the tough talk could push North Korea’s top ally, China, to do more to implement sanctions against the regime. However, Vershbow was decidedly pessimistic about the possibility there was a well thought out rationale behind Trump’s remarks.
“It’s hard to know whether this is part of some diabolically clever plan to put the heat on China by basically scaring the hell out of them,” Vershbow said, later adding, “It’s hard to be sure whether it’s that well coordinated. It looks rather incoherent to me.”
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