Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, adamantly denied reports that he dismissed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s role in the North Korea crisis in a radio interview.
“The idea that Secretary Tillerson is going to discuss military matters is simply nonsensical,” Gorka had told the BBC in an interview aired Thursday, sparking questions about the possibility of renewed administration infighting.
Later in the day, on Fox News, Gorka said that he had been “admonishing the journalist” who, he said, had asked the top US diplomat to make “the military case for action, when that is not the mandate of the Secretary of State.”
In fact, Tillerson had been asked on Wednesday about the diplomatic implications of Trump’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea, not about any military aspect of that foreign policy challenge.
“President Trump said that North Korea’s threats against the United States, if they continue, will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen before. Is this part of diplomatic strategy, or did you find those remarks to be unhelpful?” the reporter asked.
The BBC didn’t include in its broadcast the question Gorka was asked, so it was not clear exactly what he was responding to. The day before, however, Tillerson had told reporters that Americans shouldn’t worry too much about Trump’s threats to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea.
Gorka told the BBC that, “it is the job of Secretary Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, to talk about the military options, and he has done so unequivocally today,” Gorka continued. “He said, ‘Woe betide anyone who militarily challenges the United States,’ and that is his portfolio. That is his mandate. Secretary Tillerson is the chief diplomat of the United States and it is his portfolio to handle those issues.”
Gorka’s statements come amid confusion about the administration’s policy toward North Korea after a series of statements that have been dramatically different in tone and have sent starkly different messages.
While the President has threatened “fire and fury,” and on Thursday added that his comments perhaps hadn’t been tough enough, Tillerson has repeatedly said his interest is in applying “peaceful pressure” to get Pyongyang to agree to talks.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has denied Cabinet members are on different pages, insisting that they’re all pulling from “the same hymnbook.” Asked Thursday if the administration was deliberately using a “good cop, bad cop” tactic, she sidestepped, addressing the administration’s goal and not its approach. “Our policy across the administration is the same,” she said.
Gorka’s comments about Tillerson raised eyebrows in part because of the dissonant messaging on North Korea, which continued Thursday.
Speaking in New Jersey at his golf course, Trump declined to rule out a preemptive strike on North Korea, saying he wouldn’t discuss potential military options.
“We don’t talk about that. We never do. I don’t talk about it,” Trump told reporters when asked about a preemptive strike. “We’ll see what happens.”
“What they’ve been doing and what they’ve been getting away with is a tragedy and it can’t be allowed,” Trump said.
Tillerson, in remarks to reporters Wednesday, intimated that a pre-emptive strike was not in cards, but that a response to an attack from Pyongyang would be forceful.
“Americans should sleep well – have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Tillerson said in response to the question about Trump’s “fire and fury” comments.
“I think that the President, again, as commander-in-chief, I think he felt it necessary to issue a very strong statement directly to North Korea,” Tillerson said. “But I think what the President was just reaffirming is the United States has the capability to fully defend itself with any attack, will defend our allies, and we will do so.”
The State Department spokeswoman said she wouldn’t comment directly on Gorka’s remarks, but noted that Tillerson and Mattis have a close working relationship.
Asked if Tillerson would reject the assertion that he shouldn’t speak on military tensions surrounding North Korea, Nauert said, “our Secretary has been very clear, as has Secretary Mattis, that our diplomatic and military means are both strong and capable and in the face of the threats that we face against the DPRK or other nations.”
Asked again if Tillerson should be listened to, Nauert said, “I think that everyone has clearly heard what Secretary Tillerson’s forceful comments have been and have continued to be on DPRK. And should be paid attention to. He’s a Cabinet secretary. He’s the fourth in line to the presidency. He carries a big stick.”