Mattis, Tillerson detail Trump's North Korea strategy

China grapples with North Korea challenge
China grapples with North Korea challenge

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Story highlights

  • Lawmakers say Trump's national security team gave a sober assessment of North Korea
  • Democrats said Wednesday's briefing was starkly different than Trump's rhetoric

Washington (CNN)President Donald Trump's top national security advisers detailed the administration's strategy for dealing with North Korea in back-to-back classified briefings on Capitol Hill Wednesday, which lawmakers described as a sober assessment of the diplomatic and military approach to the North Korean threat.

There was bipartisan consensus that Trump's national security team outlined a sensible strategy for dealing with a problem that has no good solution and has now stymied the United States for decades, but Democrats said their assessment -- in both tone and strategy -- was at odds with the commander in chief.
"There's no bluster in there," New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, told reporters after leaving the briefing. "There's bluster we hear from the President from time to time about cutting off trade with countries like China or cutting off the trade agreement with countries like South Korea. That doesn't make much sense to me."
    Democrats have taken issue with Trump's tweets -- including his suggestion that the US might cut off trade with China and pull out of the South Korean trade agreement -- as well as his "fire and fury" rhetoric that seemed to favor military action.
    Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said the briefing that touted a diplomacy-first strategy was "directly contradictory to everything the President says."
    "I feel like we still have two different polices on North Korea: one at the Department of State and Department of Defense, and another on the President's Twitter feed," Murphy said.
    Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats briefed the full House and Senate on Wednesday on both North Korea and Afghanistan.
    Last month, Mattis rejected the notion there was daylight between himself and Trump on North Korea, following a round of news reports after Trump tweeted that "talking is not the answer" and Mattis said there's always a diplomatic solution.
    Wednesday's briefings come as the US is preparing to respond to North Korea's latest nuclear test with a new United Nations Security Council resolution.
    Lawmakers said there was talk of new sanctions and other efforts to put economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea -- and how to convince China to help in isolating Pyongyang.
    Sen. Cory Gardner said he backed efforts to ramp up sanctions targeting those who aid North Korea, including cutting off North Korean exports to China, its shipping and its petroleum imports.
    "China has made some steps, and I commend them for those steps -- obviously they could have blocked the last resolution at the UN and they did not -- but we need to see more action from China," said Gardner, a Colorado Republican. "They control so much of the (North Korean) economy they can do far more and far greater good."
    House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said the briefing underscored the need to fully fund the military budget and additional missile defense spending.
    "They're pushing diplomacy, obviously they're making a big effort in the UN, and there are of course military options. My thought is that we in Congress could support all of those efforts by getting our work done and doing a full-year budget for the military, including enhanced missile defense munitions," said the Texas Republican.
    Some Republicans disputed the accusations that Trump was contradicting his national security team.
    "It could be a case to an extent of good-cop, bad-cop, of unpredictability in the presidency of, 'Hey, I very well may use a military option' -- that is essential to back up a diplomatic instrument of power," said Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
    Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House armed services committee, said he felt Mattis and Tillerson had effectively the same message as Trump when it came to North Korea. They reaffirmed that the administration is considering withdrawing from the South Korean trade agreement, for instance, he said.
    "Obviously, Secretary Tillerson and the others are more diplomatic in the way they put things, but the message wasn't dramatically different," the Washington Democrat said.