The Fix | Analysis
April 18, 2017 at 5:00 PM
Remember that U.S. aircraft carrier that was headed to the Korean Peninsula as both the Trump administration and North Korea began to talk tough with one another? It turns out it wasn't — at least, not when we were led to think it was.
The Trump administration is again facing questions about why it appeared to mislead — or, at the very least, failed to correct the record about pervasive reports — that the USS Carl Vinson was headed to North Korea starting 10 days ago. Newly discovered photos show that it was actually traveling in the other direction — into the Indian Ocean — as recently as four days ago.
This despite Defense Secretary Jim Mattis having said April 10 that the Carl Vinson was "on her way up there" and White House press secretary Sean Spicer and a senior administration official being asked about it three times on April 11 and 12. President Trump said April 11, "We are sending an armada."
It's all a bit complex — some even think it might be calculated misdirection — so I thought it best to reconstruct events, along with who said what and when.
As you'll see, the White House clearly allowed this story line to fester for more than a week without correcting the misperceptions that the Carl Vinson was "steaming" north toward a possible standoff.
April 9: The U.S. Pacific Command announces that Admiral Harry Harris has "directed the Carl Vinson Strike Group to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean after departing Singapore April 8." A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command, Dave Benham, cites North Korea as the motivation, labeling it "the number one threat in the region … due to its reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability."
April 11: Spicer is asked about the movement and seems to confirm it:
Q: The President in his tweet noted that China could certainly help on the North Korean issue. And when you unpack it through that lens and the fact that the USS Carl Vinson is sort of steaming out toward the Sea of Japan, that may be an additional pressure to maybe get China to come to the table. … Putting that strike carrier group in the Sea of Japan, in that region, is that also a messaging circumstance? Or is that simply protective for our allies in Japan and Korea?
SPICER: A carrier group is several things. The forward deployment is deterrence, presence. It's prudent. But it does a lot of things. It ensures our — we have the strategic capabilities, and it gives the president options in the region. But I think when you see a carrier group steaming into an area like that, the forward presence of that is clearly, through almost every instance, a huge deterrence. So I think it serves multiple capabilities.
April 11: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is asked about the movement and says it is "prudent" but not based on anything specific:
Q: Mr. Secretary, if I can ask you about North Korea, the Vinson strike group has now been redirected towards the Sea of Japan in the coming weeks. General Brooks is no longer coming to testimony later this month. Has tension ratcheted up just recently in the past few days and can you explain why, what has changed just in the past couple of days or week?
MATTIS: As far as the movement of the Vinson, she's stationed there in the western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific, and she's just on her way up there because that's where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time. There's not a specific demand signal or specific reason why we're sending her up there.
April 11: In a taped interview with Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo (which would air April 12), Trump is asked about the movement and confirms it:
BARTIROMO: You redirected navy ships to go toward the Korean Peninsula. What are we doing right now in terms of North Korea?
TRUMP: We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.
April 12: MSNBC's Greta Van Susteren mentions the Carl Vinson's movement toward North Korea in a question, and Spicer doesn't quibble:
VAN SUSTEREN: The USS Carl Vinson is steaming its way towards the coast of DPRK, North Korea. Kim Jong Un has provocative words, which he has done before but they have had five nuclear tests and they've had multiple missile tests recently. What's the endgame on this? Are we just waiting for Saturday to see if Kim Jong Un does something, has another missile launch on the birth date of Kim Il Sung, his grandfather? Or what's the program?
SPICER: I think we need to get the world community in agreement, particularly China. I mean, we've had very productive talks with both Japan and South Korea. But China can play a very important role and something the president discussed with President Xi last week, Thursday and Friday, about, again, this is almost like Russia with ISIS. But we have a shared interest with China of making sure that we don't have a nuclear North Korea.
April 12: In a background briefing, a "senior administration official" is asked about Japanese reports of joint drills with the Carl Vinson on its way to the Korean Peninsula, and doesn't correct the record:
Q: Japanese media is reporting that the USS Carl Vinson is in operations with the Japanese naval forces. As you know, they have a (inaudible). What happens if there is a confrontation this week between North Korean forces and Japanese and U.S. forces? And how will you prevent this from spiraling into a broader military conflict?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as you heard from the president many times, we're not in the business of trying to predict with a high degree of certainty precisely what our response is going to be. I think what we demonstrated last week was the ability of the President's national security team to come together, convened by the National Security Council, to look at events such as those that might occur on the Korean Peninsula, quickly analyze those events, place them in context with U.S. vital interests, establish objectives that protect American citizens and advance our interests, and then develop and present the president with options.
April 12: At a news conference in Moscow, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to suggest that the Carl Vinson's movements actually aren't about North Korea:
Q (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The Korean Peninsula: The Americans have sent a whole naval company. Did you talk about that in your negotiations and the danger to the particular region? And does mean that the U.S. has some plans for a military campaign around the Korean Peninsula? Thank you.
TILLERSON: The Carl Vinson Strike Group is routinely in the Pacific Ocean — it's in the Pacific theater. And its movements in the Pacific are made in a way that's planned by the military planners. There is no particular objective in its current course. The Vinson sails up and down the Pacific routinely, and so I would not read anything into the Carl Vinson's current locations.
April 13: NBC News reports that the United States is prepared to launch a preemptive strike if it thinks that North Korea is about to launch a nuclear weapons test. Other officials vehemently deny the report, which cites the Carl Vinson's movement to the Korean Peninsula.
April 15: A photo taken and published by the Navy shows the Carl Vinson in the Sunda Strait, between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java. Photos later in the day show it in the Indian Ocean — suggesting a southward path away from both North Korea and Singapore.
April 17: Vice President Pence visits the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and has tough words, declaring the end of the United States' policy of "strategic patience" with North Korea. "Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," Pence said. "North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region."
April 17: Defense News puts together the puzzle and deduces that the Carl Vinson isn't, in fact, headed up to the Korean Peninsula — at least not yet. A Pacific Fleet spokesman, Cmdr. Clayton Doss, confirms that the Carl Vinson is not in the waters around either South Korea or Japan.
CORRECTION: This post initially described Mattis's comments as having come April 10. They came April 11.