Immediately following the call by Chinese President Xi Jinping to President Trump on Sunday, during which the Chinese President warned President Trump against any unilateral military action against North Korea, comes news that the White House on Wednesday will be a location for a briefing on North Korea of the entire US Senate.
It is important to say that contrary to a report by the BBC this is not a summons of the Senate to the White House by the President. Rather it is a decision by Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, to hold a Senate briefing in the White House rather than on Capitol Hill.
That this is so was confirmed by Sean Spicer, President Trump’s spokesman, during his regular press briefing on Monday
Also on North Korea, on Wednesday, the White House campus will play host to a briefing for all U.S. — 100 U.S. senators on the subject. The briefers will be Secretary Tillerson and Mattis, Director Coats and General Dunford. This is a Senate briefing convened by the Majority Leader, not a White House briefing. We are just serving as the location. For further questions, I’d direct you to the Majority Leader’s office and the office of the four briefers.
Holding a Senate briefing in the White House instead of on Capitol Hill is however a most remarkable step, and the Washington Post says staffers in the Senate are perplexed by it.
Though the White House says the meeting was convened by Senator McConnell rather than by the Trump administration itself, it is difficult to believe that it was done without some degree of prompting from the White House.
The Senators are in the process of returning to Capitol Hill after a 2 week recess, and with the President possibly smarting from his failure to press the Chinese into taking stronger action against North Korea, it seems the administration has now decided to raise the stakes by getting Senator McConnell to convene a classified briefing of the whole Senate in the White House.
There has to be concern that this briefing is preparatory to the White House seeking authorisation for military action. The fact that General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be attending the briefing, points strongly to that likelihood, and suggests that military options against North Korea will be discussed during the briefing.
Against that it has to be said that the President hosted a lunch in Washington of the UN Security Council ambassadors on Monday, including obviously those of China and Russia. During that lunch he made the following comments
The status quo in North Korea is also unacceptable, and the Council must be prepared to impose additional and stronger sanctions on North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This is a real threat to the world, whether we want to talk about it or not. North Korea is a big world problem, and it’s a problem we have to finally solve. People have put blindfolds on for decades, and now it’s time to solve the problem.
That suggests that the President is heeding China’s warning and is still looking for diplomatic action, with his priority being to get the UN Security Council to impose further sanctions against North Korean after these have been agreed by the administration with the Russians and the Chinese. If so then that suggests that military action has not been decided on yet.
Putting all the known facts together, what is possibly the most likely explanation for this strange move is that after their long slumber some members of the Senate and of the Congress, as they return to Washington after the recess, are finally starting to signal their concern, and the President and his advisers are seeking by briefing them in the White House both to bring them onside and to send a strong signal to the North Koreans and the Chinese.
However if one thing is now clear about this President, it is that it is impossible to predict his actions with any confidence.
Moreover even if the intention is merely to keep the Senate onside during a period of growing tension in the Korean Peninsula whilst at the same time sending a strong signal to the North Koreans and the Chinese, the mere fact of briefing the full Senate in the White House – and of regaling the Senators with what will undoubtedly be flesh-creeping talk of North Korean nuclear bombs and missiles raining down on the US – risks creating a momentum of its own. It is bound to heighten talk of war, and of the need for a pre-emptive US strike to prevent what many of the Senators will no doubt see as a ‘clear and present danger’ from North Korea to the US. That in turn is bound to make the possibility of a military strike more likely.
What that unfortunately means is that we are a further step closer to a US military strike against North Korea, even if that is not what the President intends at the moment.
The next few days will be extremely tense, and the situation is now very dangerous.
Much will depend on whether or not there is a North Korean nuclear test over the next few days. If there is one, it is difficult to see how the President can draw back without losing face. It is nonetheless to be sincerely hoped that he does. However, one way or the other, by holding a Senate briefing in the White House, the President has just made pulling back harder as he closes off his options for retreat.