The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More drama in Trumpland: Gorka publicly shuns Tillerson’s effort to scale back North Korea red line

The deputy assistant to President Trump, Sebastian Gorka, appears at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Update: Gorka is now saying his comments have been misconstrued and that he was merely saying the media shouldn’t ask Tillerson questions about military matters. “I said for reporters to force our chief diplomat — the amazing Rex Tillerson — to give details of military options is nonsensical. He is the secretary of state. ... I was admonishing the journalist of the fake news-industrial complex ... who are demanding that he make the military case for action.”

For those worried that President Trump might get into nuclear war with North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provided some solace Wednesday. “Americans should sleep well at night,” Tillerson said, tempering Trump’s promise to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if it continued to threaten the United States. Tillerson emphasized that no conflict was imminent.

But now another Trump administration voice is suggesting that we shouldn’t pay Tillerson much mind.

Sebastian Gorka appeared on BBC radio Thursday and delivered one of the most aggressive takes to date on what Trump might do — even allowing that a mere threat from North Korea could be construed as an act of war, as Trump seemed to do earlier this week. In doing so, Gorka played down Tillerson’s role in all of this.

“You should listen to the president; the idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Gorka said in a recording shared with The Washington Post. “It is the job of Secretary Mattis, the secretary of defense, to talk about the military options, and he has done so unequivocally. He said, ‘Woe betide anyone who militarily challenges the United States,’ and that is his portfolio. That is his mandate. Secretary Tillerson is the chief diplomat of the United States, and it is his portfolio to handle those issues.”

The suggestion seems to be that Tillerson was out of his element when he provided those assurances Wednesday — that Tillerson wouldn’t even know how imminent such a conflict might be because it’s not in his purview.

Here are four important things we know about North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

And that’s a striking message from another member of the White House team. For a president who has publicly undermined his own attorney general and whose communications director railed against his two top White House aides in an interview two weeks ago, it looks like more backbiting and internal discord.

Trump on Tuesday seemed to be setting the red line for North Korea at any kind of threat — which Pyongyang, of course, makes often and would do again, soon after Trump’s comments, by threatening Guam. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump said. “They will be met with the fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Tillerson seemed to scale back that red line Wednesday. But Gorka’s comments provide yet more conflicting information from the White House about precisely where that red line lies. Gorka seems to be saying it’s right back to where Trump suggested it was — or at least that Trump reserved the right to consider mere threats to be acts of war.

The interviewer pressed him on that point:

Q: But are you telling me, though, Mr. Gorka, that if there is an action by North Korea that is felt by the United States to be threatening, then that is war? Is that the understanding that the North Koreans should have?
GORKA: If you threaten a nation, then what should you expect — a stiffly worded letter that would be sent by courier? Is that what the U.K. would do if a nation threatened a nuclear-tipped missile launched against any of the United Kingdom’s territories?

That’s very different from what Tillerson said.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake looks at how President Trump’s threats to North Korea contrast with the milder tone of his Cabinet secretaries. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

As I wrote Wednesday morning, we may be witnessing a little “Good Cop, Bad Cop” here, with the administration providing different signals to keep North Korea guessing. It’s the “madman theory,” which says you want your enemies to think you’re capable of anything.

But this also seems to fit into a pattern of the White House not really having its story straight and figuring things out on the fly — which would be a perilous strategy, given the stakes of the North Korea situation. And it also fits into a long-running pattern of White House officials undermining one another, both privately and publicly. Having members of your staff undercut your own secretary of state doesn’t seem like a great way to do business.

(h/t Adam Taylor)