BEDMINSTER, N.J. — President Donald Trump again escalated his rhetoric about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs Thursday, threatening that “things will happen to them like they never thought possible” should the isolated country attack the United States or its allies.
Trump told reporters here that his Tuesday statement warning of “fire and fury” may not have been “tough enough,” even as he stepped up his brinksmanship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the president sought to reassure anxious people around the world that he has the situation under control.
“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” Trump said. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So, if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”
Asked what would have been tougher than “fire and fury,” Trump replied only, “You’ll see. You’ll see.” In Twitter comments Wednesday that were clearly directed at North Korea, he warned that the U.S. nuclear arsenal was “now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
In his newest remarks, Trump would not say whether he is considering a preemptive strike on North Korea. He said he remained open to negotiating with Pyongyang, but that talks over the years had done little to halt the country’s nuclear program.
“What they’ve been doing, what they’ve been getting away with, is a tragedy and it can’t be allowed,” Trump said.
The nuclear crisis has left leaders and people around the world jittery, but Trump said it was North Korea that should be nervous.
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“The people of this country should be very comfortable, and I will tell you this: If North Korea does anything in terms of even thinking about attack of anybody that we love or we represent or our allies or us, they can be very, very nervous,” he said. “Things will happen to them like they never thought possible.”
Trump’s Thursday comments came during a seven-minute news conference on the steps of the grand clubhouse of his private golf club here in Bedminster, N.J., where he is spending most of his 17-day working vacation. He was flanked by Vice President Pence, who nodded approvingly, but delivered no statement of his own.
Trump and Pence were scheduled to attend a Thursday afternoon security briefing along with White House chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
The session comes after two days of mixed messages emanating from the Trump administration.
On Tuesday, Trump delivered an unusually bellicose threat to North Korea, warning that further provocations from Pyongyang “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” His language was improvised, and had not been reviewed by his national security advisers or political aides.
The North Koreans effectively laughed off Trump’s “fire and fury” threat, calling his statement “a load of nonsense.” And they also threatened to fire missiles over the waters off Guam, a strategically-located Pacific island and home to U.S. military bases.
Asked Thursday morning whether Trump’s thinking on the North Korean nuclear crisis had evolved in the wake of the threat to Guam, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said it had not.
“Certainly nothing has changed in the president’s thinking,” Sanders told reporters. “He’s made clear how he feels on that front.”
Following Trump’s original comments, senior administration officials sought to calm anxious world leaders as well as Americans. But statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and senior White House officials, including adviser Sebastian Gorka, varied in widely in tone and to some extent in substance. They ranged from sober and reassuring (Tillerson) to forceful yet measured (Mattis) to bellicose in the style of the president (Gorka).
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In separate remarks made late Wednesday but not released by the Pentagon until Thursday, Mattis emphasized that current U.S. policy is focused on diplomacy. “What we’re doing is a diplomatically led effort that is succeeding in drawing the international community together,” including last weekend’s unanimous United Nations Security Council approval of new economic sanctions on North Korea.
“Of course there’s a military option,” Mattis told a pool of reporters traveling with him to Seattle, where he planned to visit technology companies. But “we want to use diplomacy. That’s where we’ve been, that’s where we are right now and that’s where we hope to remain.”
Asked whether Trump’s “fire and fury” comments had caught him by surprise, Mattis said that “The rhetoric is up to the President,” he said. “This is my rhetoric.”
Gorka, asked Thursday by BBC News about the apparent divergence between Trump and his senior Cabinet advisers, said “You should listen to the president.” It was “simply nonsensical” that Tillerson, who had emphasized building diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea, “is going to discuss military matters,” Gorka said.
“North Korea has said they wish to annihilate the United States and use nuclear weapons,” he said. “Sooner or later, somebody should take them seriously. Clinton and Obama did not do so ... that stopped on Jan. 20,” when Trump was inaugurated.
“We are not giving in to nuclear blackmail any longer,” he said. Asked about critics such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who called Trump’s rhetoric provocative, Gorka replied that “there is only one person in this great country that controls our nuclear arsenal, and it’s not John McCain.”
At the State Department Thursday, spokeswoman Heather Nauert responded sharply. “I can say that I speak for Secretary Tillerson and this building. ... Our secretary has been very clear, as has been Secretary Mattis, that our diplomatic and military means are both strong and capable.”
Asked whether Tillerson was being listened to, Nauert said “he’s a cabinet secretary, he’s fourth in line to the presidency, he carries a big stick.”
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Tillerson, who returned Wednesday from a lengthy Asian trip where he sought to build support for full implementation of the new sanctions, made no public appearance.
On that subject, the Associated Press reported that Kuwait’s government said it would continue to grant visas to North Korean laborers, whose wages allegedly aid the Pyongyang government, despite a new sanctions provision prohibiting their employment.
The AP quoted a statement issued by the Kuwait government saying “there are no plans to expel” some 6,000 North Korean laborers working there.
Nauert said the statement had been “brought to our attention” and “we understand that the government of Kuwait will be issuing a [new] statement imminently. ... We are in close contact with the government of Kuwait, and they understand the serious nature” of the sanctions.
About an hour later, the Kuwait News Agency posted a statement from the country’s foreign ministry saying that “pursuant to the UN Security Council resolution on economic sanctions on North Korea, the State of Kuwait no longer issues entry visas for North Korean workers or licenses for commercial activities and halted direct flights from the country.”
DeYoung reported from Washington.