The Trump administration worked Wednesday to quell an international furor and calm questions over its credibility after misstating by thousands of miles the location of a U.S. aircraft carrier officials had warned could be used to strike North Korea.
The White House shrugged off any blame for its role, saying it didn’t mislead U.S. allies about the destination of the USS Carl Vinson and its strike group.
“The president said we have an armada going toward the peninsula,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “That’s a fact. It happened. It is happening, rather.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, acknowledged it could have more effectively handled information about the Vinson’s location and course. “We communicated this badly,” said a defense official. “We, the department, communicated this badly.”
Earlier this month, military officials said they were canceling the Vinson group’s planned port calls in Australia to send it north toward the Korean Peninsula as concerns grew about preparations for possible North Korean weapons tests.
The ships proceeded to Australia for planned maneuvers, and are scheduled to reach the Koreas next week, officials said Tuesday.
But administration and Pentagon officials throughout last week described their location in markedly more ominous terms. “We have ships heading there,” President Donald Trump said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping in an April 12 phone call. “We have the nuclear subs, which are far more destructive.”
Across Asia, the difference between the threats and the actual location of the ships prompted widespread criticism and confusion and threatened to open a credibility gap between the U.S. and some government officials and political observers.
North Korea’s state-run news service said Washington “now bluffs” as part of its approach.
In South Korea, Hong Joon-pyo, the presidential candidate from former leader Park Geun-hye’s ruling party, said it was inappropriate to judge before receiving final confirmation of the Vinson’s whereabouts.
But, in an interview, he said: “What [Mr. Trump] said was very important for the national security of South Korea. If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says.”
In China, the shifting narrative about the whereabouts of the Vinson and its strike group prompted some jibes on social media and in news outlets.
Chinese news portal Guancha.cn declared: “Media around the entire world have been duped by Trump again!” The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid, took that observation a step further, dubbing the incident a “scandal” that “sours Trump’s authority.”
Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based commentator on military affairs, said Mr. Trump appeared to use claims of the Vinson’s deployment as a feint.
“Trump and the media jointly performed a modern-day ‘Empty Fort Strategy,’” Mr. Ni wrote on his Weibo microblog, referring to a reverse-psychology ploy described in the ancient Chinese military treatise, “Thirty-Six Stratagems.”
In Australia, Defense Minister Marise Payne declined to comment on any disruption to scheduled military exercises, only calling North Korea’s weapons program “absolutely reckless and destabilizing.”
Mr. Spicer said that comments by U.S. officials about the location of the aircraft carrier hadn’t been misleading. He referred any questions about the timing of the carrier’s voyage to the Pentagon.
Pressed on whether it was misleading last week to say the aircraft carrier was heading toward the Koreas when in fact it was moving in a different direction at the time, Mr. Spicer said: “We answered a question on what signal it sent. I’m not the one who commented on timing.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis addressed the confusion on Wednesday during a trip to Saudi Arabia, saying he had been trying to be transparent about the ship’s whereabouts when he answered questions about it last week at the Pentagon.
“The bottom line is, in our efforts to always be open about what we’re doing, we said that we were going to change the Vinson’s schedule,” Mr. Mattis told reporters Wednesday during a briefing at a hotel in Riyadh during a tour of the Middle East.
“We don’t generally give out ships’ schedules in advance, but I didn’t want to play a game either and say we weren’t changing a schedule when in fact we had,” he said.
While Mr. Mattis indicated the Pentagon wouldn’t normally convey to the public any ship movements, the defense official also said, “the Pentagon normally wouldn’t tell the White House exactly what dates ships will be where anyway.”
That probably gave the White House the impression that the ships’ movement was more immediate than it was, the official said.
But, the official said, the media played a role, too. “Sloppy reporting” from national and international media contributed to the problem because some reports jumped to conclusions and didn’t clarify the specific timing of the Vinson’s arrival in that area, the official said.
If the U.S. aim was to confuse North Korea, that would only be effective if it was done in close consultation with allies in the region, said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security program at the Center for a New American Security, said
“The U.S. needs to fashion a serious strategy, even if it’s not perfect on a daily basis,” he said.
He said communication with allies was made more difficult by the election season in South Korea, because the leading candidates wouldn’t have access to information about the Vinson’s whereabouts.
In Japan, Prof. Narushige Michishita of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies said regardless of whether the U.S. intended to deceive or the narrative was a miscommunication, it looked bad for the White House.
“At a time of emergency, disinformation could be used as a tactic, but if the U.S. president spreads disinformation in peacetime like now, it would hurt the credibility of the U.S.,” he said.
—Chun Han Wong in Beijing; Felicia Schwartz and Rebecca Ballhaus in Washington; Chieko Tsuneoka in Tokyo; and Rob Taylor in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this article.
Write to Ben Kesling at email@example.com, Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Jonathan Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the Apr. 20, 2017, print edition as 'U.S. Says It Didn’t Mislead on Ship.'
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