The launch wasn't expected
It presented Trump with one of the first breaking national security incidents of his presidency
The iceberg wedge salads, dripping with blue cheese dressing, had just been served on the terrace of Mar-a-Lago Saturday when the call to President Donald Trump came in: North Korea had launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile, its first challenge to international rules since Trump was sworn in three weeks ago.
The launch, which wasn’t expected, presented Trump with one of the first breaking national security incidents of his presidency. It also noisily disrupted what was meant to be an easygoing weekend of high-level male bonding with the more sobering aspects of global diplomacy.
Sitting alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he’d spent most of the day golfing, Trump took the call on a mobile phone at his table, which was set squarely in the middle of the private club’s dining area.
As Mar-a-Lago’s wealthy members looked on from their tables, and with a keyboard player crooning in the background, Trump and Abe’s evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN.
News of Pyongyang’s launch had emerged an hour earlier, as Trump was preparing for dinner in his residence. Officials had concluded the Musudan-level missile flew 310 miles off North Korea’s eastern coast before crashing into the Sea of Japan.
North Korea tests new missile
For the new commander in chief, the launch was his first brush with the hermit regime’s saber-rattling, which along with heated rhetoric from the young leader Kim Jong-un has spooked the country’s neighbors. During his pre-election intelligence briefings, Trump requested supplemental information about North Korea from US intelligence officials. National security analysts have identified the nation’s nuclear program as one of the imminent threats facing Trump as he begins his tenure in the White House.
In his talks with Abe at the White House on Friday, the North Korea threat weighed heavily. Abe said during a concluding news conference that he and Trump had agreed to “strongly demand” the country “abandon (its) nuclear and ballistic missile program.” They departed a short time later for Florida.
On Saturday evening, as the two men walked through Mar-a-Lago’s ornate wrought-iron doors on their way to dinner, neither responded to questions about the launch from reporters.
Swanning through the club’s living room and main dining area alongside Abe, Trump was – as is now typical – swarmed with paying members, who now view dinner at the club as an opportunity for a few seconds of face time with the new President.
But as he sat down for the planned working dinner with Abe, whose country is well within range of North Korea’s missiles, it was clear his counterpart felt it necessary to respond to the test. The launch occurred just before 8 a.m. on Sunday morning in Japan.
Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn and chief strategist Steve Bannon left their seats to huddle closer to Trump as documents were produced and phone calls were placed to officials in Washington and Tokyo.
Presidents always travel with secure communications equipment, even when they’re on vacation. A Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, known as a SCIFF, also comes along. The tent-like structure can fit inside a hotel room and allows a president to conduct sensitive phone calls without the risk of being detected by recording devices.
At Mar-a-Lago on Saturday, it had not been immediately clear whether Trump utilized that equipment, but White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Monday he had.
“The President was briefed in a SCIFF prior to dinner,” Spicer told reporters Monday. “They were reviewing the logistics for the press conference … President was subsequently briefed in a classified setting.”
On Saturday night, the patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents.