Tillerson Throws Ice on Trump’s Heated Exchange With North Korea

WASHINGTON (CN) – Undercutting the terse words exchanged between President Donald Trump and Pyongyang, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that there is no “imminent threat” from North Korea and Americans should “sleep well at night.”

Tillerson delivered the call for calm to reporters onboard a flight to Washington from Malaysia. On his way back to the U.S., the secretary made a stop in Guam — a tiny Pacific island at the center of threats delivered last night from an increasingly agitated North Korea.

Tensions with North Korea grew Tuesday on the heels of a news conference Trump held at his Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” the president had said. “They will be met with fire, fury and frankly, power the lieks of which this world has never seen before.”

But Tillerson cushioned the rhetoric Wednesday, a role he has been playing increasingly, stressing the president’s desire to send a coherent, strong message.

This was done, he told reporters, to avoid “any miscalculation.”

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said. “I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself and its allies.”

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a more tempered warning in a statement Wednesday, telling North Korea “to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

“The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” Mattis added.

The president followed up Tillerson’s statements as well Wednesday, offering reassurance on Twitter.

“My first order as president was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal,” Trump tweeted. “It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!” 

Mattis noted in his statement that Trump learned of the threat North Korea poses to the United States in December.

“On taking office his first orders to me emphasized the readiness of our ballistic missile defense and nuclear deterrent forces,” Mattis said. “While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth.  The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

Tillerson meanwhile has spent the last several days in Asia, attempting to soothe tensions around the activities of an increasingly unpredictable North Korea. Despite the ramping up of bombastic talk, Tillerson told reporters that a new diplomatic strategy wasn’t needed for the peninsula.

The United Nations Security Council’s decision to authorize new sanctions on North Korea shows a change in attitude by China, Tillerson suggested.

“The pressure is starting to show,” he said. “I think that’s why the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang is beginning to become louder and more threatening. Whether we’ve got them back into a corner or not is difficult to say, but diplomatically, you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out.”

In previsions admissions, Tillerson has painted de-escalation as challenging, and somewhat unlikely now, but not impossible. The secretary has indicated that peace is possible if North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear program and halt all missile tests for an extended period of time.

“Talks — talks with the right expectation of what those talks will be about,” he said.

The requests by Tillerson are similar to commentary from lawmakers over the last 48 hours who have called for calm and restraint. Sen. John McCain, R.-Arizona, warned the president to ease off the threats during a radio interview with Phoenix station KTAR.

“I take exception to the president’s comments because you’ve got to be sure that you can do what you say you’re going to do,” the senator said. “The great leaders I’ve seen don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act.”

McCain added, however, that Trump’s “fire and fury” comment wasn’t “terrible.”

“It’s kind of the classic Trump in that he overstates things,” he said.

Several Democratic lawmakers countered that overstatements, even on a very real threat, are damaging.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., said the president “is not helping the situation with his bombastic comments,” and Rep. Eliot Engel, D.-New York, said Trump’s talk undermines U.S. credibility by drawing an “absurd red line.”

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