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Trump administration talks tough on North Korea, but frustrated lawmakers want details

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) say China must pressure North Korea into stopping its nuclear weapons program. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

President Trump and his top national security advisers briefed congressional lawmakers Wednesday on what a senior aide called the “very grave threat” posed by North Korea, but they offered few details about the administration’s strategy to pressure Pyongyang.

Administration officials emphasized in a pair of private briefings — one open to all senators and held at the White House complex and one for House members on Capitol Hill — that they were developing a range of economic, diplomatic and military measures in the wake of a series of provocations from North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s regime.

Lawmakers said they came away convinced that the Trump administration recognized the urgency of the mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where Pyongyang conducted a failed missile test last week and drew international condemnation for the launch.

But several members of Congress said the administration remained vague about its efforts to confront Pyongyang beyond tougher talk from Trump.

“There was a definite degree of resolve that we’ve got a bad situation on our hands and they’re ratcheting up the importance of this,” said one Republican senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss a private meeting. “One of the things that I surmised from it was that as much as anything else, perhaps they wanted to prepare everybody for the fact that this could escalate quickly. That’s my own read on it.”

The administration unveils measures to revamp the tax code while House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) praises a new GOP proposal to revise Obamacare. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Alice Li, Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, emphasized, however, that there was no talk from the administration about a preemptive strike on North Korea.

Among the options the administration is considering are additional economic sanctions on the North and attempts to further isolate the Kim regime in the international community. The Pentagon also is developing military options, officials said, after having already directed the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group toward the peninsula in a show of force that has drawn rebukes from Pyongyang.

A senior administration official told reporters that a timeline had been developed to press North Korea, but he emphasized that the approach would be “mainly events-driven,” predicated on the Kim regime’s actions.

“Nothing is risk-free. This situation is not risk-free,” said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline internal planning. He spoke as the briefing for the senators was underway at a secure location at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House.

“But the team has done everything we can try to anticipate reactions [from North Korea] and mitigate the risk,” the official said.

Trump has tried to reset the U.S. approach to North Korea, citing the failure of past administrations to rein in the rogue nation’s nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs. The administration has said the era of “strategic patience” — isolating the regime economically and diplomatically in hopes of reengaging in diplomatic talks — is over, and Trump has promised that the United States would “solve” the North Korea problem unilaterally if necessary. The president also has directly pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping to exert more pressure on Kim.

But the Trump White House has not defined a policy that looks strikingly different from the approach of past administrations, lawmakers said.

Asked by reporters to speak more broadly about Trump’s foreign policy doctrine, the senior administration official said the president “weighs the risk of any action . . . but what he’s also done in the first few weeks is weigh the risk of inaction.”

“He’s recognized there’s a cost to inaction,” the official said, citing Trump’s decision to authorize a missile strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces over the use of chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war.

Trump offered to host the briefing for the senators at the White House as a courtesy after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) requested that the full chamber hear directly from administration officials. The location at the White House was a first for such a large group, prompting some lawmakers to speculate the administration would disclose a major initiative.

Senators rode together to the White House on a large white bus, and they were instructed to leave their cellphones outside the auditorium, which had been configured as a secure briefing room to prevent electronic eavesdropping.

Although the briefing was sobering, it was not revelatory, some of the participants said.

“There was very little, if anything new,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I remain mystified about why the entire Senate had to be taken over to the White House rather than conducting it here.”

Trump and Vice President Pence briefly addressed the senators at the beginning of the meeting.

When they left, senators heard from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence; and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In a joint statement, Tillerson, Mattis and Coats called North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons “an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority.” They said Trump’s approach aimed to tighten economic sanctions and pursue “diplomatic measures” with allies and partners.

The goal is to “convince the regime to de-escalate and return to a path of dialogue” toward peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, they said. “We remain open to negotiations towards that goal. However we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies.”

Several of the same national security aides later briefed the House members on Capitol Hill, although Trump did not attend that meeting.

The Republican senator who requested anonymity said “the basic gist of it at the beginning was that we’re going to get more aggressive; we’ve waited and they’ve continued to be bad actors. We’ve reached a point where things are getting pretty dire and getting to the point where we’ve got to get more aggressive.”

“From then on, what we all wanted to know is: What does that mean?” the senator added. “What is it that we should be looking for as the trigger that something is about to happen and that we’d end up taking some kind of kinetic action? That’s where things got a little elliptical.”

Lawmakers who planned to push the administration to take intermediary steps — such as stiffening sanctions against China for its support of Pyongyang, or relabeling North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism — came away with no promises from the administration.

“I have supported putting North Korea back as a state sponsor of terror,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said. “But no indication yet from the administration.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) came away from the briefing promising to file legislation that would increase sanctions against North Korea and its supporters to “choke off some of the hard currency that this regime uses for its nuclear program.” He said his proposal would focus on financial institutions, North Korea’s shipping industry and “slave labor” crews that are sent to work abroad so the Kim regime can collect their wages.

“We’re going to move very quickly,” Royce said.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.