Shortly after the U.S. detected the launch of a North Korean missile that soared over Japan, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley joined national security aides on calls to craft an urgent response.
Coming less than a week after Trump said Kim Jong Un was “starting to respect” the U.S., the test-firing was a provocation and required a clear response. So the team activated a process put in place by Trump’s new chief of staff John Kelly in anticipation of just such a crisis.
The idea was to reach out first to reassure allies and ensure the initial response came not as an off-the-cuff presidential tweet but a statement that reflected measured thinking, according to people familiar with the process, who asked not to be identified discussing internal policy.
Deliberations were cut off early in the evening as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — who was joined in his office by Tillerson for the calls on how to respond — prepared a statement for President Donald Trump’s approval, the people said.
The response, announced Tuesday morning in Washington, said North Korea’s latest launches “signaled contempt” for its neighbors and restated the U.S. position that “all options are on the table.”
There was no repeat of Trump’s “fire and fury” comment from earlier this month. The more restrained approach helped ease market jitters, as the dollar erased losses and U.S. stocks gained. But the brief remarks were also a tacit concession that officials were unable to articulate a response equal to Kim’s latest move.
Facing an acceleration in North Korea’s weapons testing, Trump finds himself confronting the same predicament that bedeviled predecessors Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — leaders he’s blamed for not halting North Korea’s nuclear and missile program at an earlier stage.
“Kim Jong Un is pretty much in the driver’s seat,” said former U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus. The Trump administration “is in a real tough spot,” he added.
That view was echoed by Gary Samore, a former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction under Obama.
“The fundamental obstacle to negotiations is Kim Jong Un, not…