As North Korea escalated its war of words with Washington, President Trump declared last week that he was “sending an armada, very powerful” toward the Asian nation. He, like other officials, made that assertion after U.S. Pacific Command’s April 9 announcement that the ship was headed from Singapore toward the western Pacific, part of a U.S. response to tensions with Pyongyang.
But news early this week that the ship at the time was actually in the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles to the southwest, triggered speculation that the Trump administration, eager to illustrate its hawkish stance on a range of national security issues, was using deceptive means to send a message to Pyongyang.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, during his daily media briefing on Wednesday, disputed the notion that the administration had led anyone astray.
“What part is misleading? I’m trying to figure that out,” Spicer said. “We were asked a question about what signal it sent. We answered the question on what signal it sent. I’m not the one who commented on timing.”
But military officials struggled to give a firm answer for why officials from the Pentagon and other agencies failed to correct at least a week of widespread media reports stating that the ship was already headed north toward the Korean Peninsula.
According to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the issue, the misperception began after U.S. Pacific Command (Pacom) made its April 9 announcement, which stated that the ship would cancel scheduled stops in Australia and head toward the “Western Pacific” from Singapore. Although the statement did not mention North Korea explicitly, when asked about it, Pacom officials made a direct link between the carrier’s re-routing and the North Korean threat. The decision to send the carrier north was a “prudent” measure as North Korea posed “the number one threat in the region,” one official said.
As media outlets reported widely on the deployment, senior officials made comments in the following days that reinforced the belief that the ship was already headed in the direction of North Korea. On April 11, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, asked about the Vinson during a news conference, said the ship was “on her way up there.” The next day, Trump made his comments in a television interview.
While Pacom made reference to the Carl Vinson’s participation in an Indian Ocean exercise around that same time in at least one media report, its statements about the ship’s location remained unclear, and most outlets continued to report the ship’s movement toward Korea. That gave rise to the belief, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a massive military parade and a failed missile launch over the weekend, that the ship was getting ever closer to the isolated Asian nation.
Several days later, the ship’s presence in the Indian Ocean came to light.
Some officials suggested that U.S. Pacific Command was to blame for the way it communicated its unusual decision to telegraph the future movements of one of its ships, an announcement that appeared to have taken at least some officials by surprise. “The Pacom announcement could have been worded a little more clearly,” one defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
But the perception of a carrier strike group steaming toward North Korea at a time of swiftly escalating tension also served the interests of Trump and his top advisers, who were keen to send a deterrent message to Pyongyang and illustrate its break with the policies of former president Barack Obama.
Already, military officials appear to be responding to those signals from their new commander in chief, as counterterrorism operations intensify in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Similarly, a desire to visibly flex naval muscles may have contributed to Pacom’s decision to announce the redirection.
Officials suggested that Mattis, like Trump, had been speaking generally about future movements of the ship when he addressed its trajectory last week. Speaking to reporters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, Mattis chalked the confusion up to U.S. military efforts to be transparent.
“The bottom line is in our effort to always be open about what we were doing. We said that we were going to change the Vinson’s upcoming schedule,” he said. “She will be on her way and I’ll determine when she gets there and where she actually operates, but the Vinson will be a part of our ensuring that we stand by our allies in the northwest Pacific.”
Spicer, too, sought to brush aside the focus on the timing of the ship’s movements. “The president said that we have an armada going towards the peninsula,” he said. “That’s a fact. It happened. It is happening, rather.”
Officials say that the ship, which gained notoriety in 2011 when U.S. officials used it to give al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden a burial at sea, is now headed north after completing its Indian Ocean maneuvers.
Anna Fifield in Tokyo contributed to this report.