For the inside-the-beltway press, time stopped on Friday with the news that special counsel Robert Mueller’s team had secured the first indictment stemming from its investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. (Breaking as I write: as we all suspected, the New York Times has just reported that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates have been told to surrender to Federal authorities). Before that, all the talk had been about who paid whom, when, and for what, to produce the so-called dossier on Trump’s alleged Russian connections.
This soda-straw view of the world affects how the public understands, or doesn’t understand, what is going on. As veteran defense reporter Jamie McIntyre observed this morning, “With Washington fixated on what is being called ‘Mueller Monday,’ it is worth noting that on the Sunday shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox, there was no mention of the word ‘Korea’ or ‘Niger.'”
But President Trump begins a 12-day, five-country trip to Asia on Friday, and three carrier strike groups will be in the region with him. There is no more awesome sign of American military power than an aircraft carrier, and the appearance of one off the coast of any country sends a powerful message.
In anticipation of that trip, here are two developments on the Korean front that might have been lost in the shuffle.
Mattis warns of increased risk
Defense Secretary James Mattis was in Korea last week, and spoke to the press with his South Korean counterpart, Song Young-moo during a visit to the Joint Security Area, better known as the Truce village, on the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas. In typically candid language, Mattis said the threat of nuclear confrontation is getting worse, not better.
“North Korea has accelerated the threat that it poses to its neighbors and the world through its illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear weapons programs,” Mattis said. He repeated the administration’s position that “I cannot imagine a condition under which the United States would accept North Korea as a nuclear power.”
To calm the fears that the administration is plunging headlong into an inevitable nuclear confrontation, Mattis added, “Our goal is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Other than repeating the likely idle threat to detonate a nuclear weapon over the Pacific Ocean, the DPRK has been fairly quiet recently, so one wonders what intelligence Mattis is relying on to assert that the threat is accelerating.
Pence visits strategic nuke sites
Also on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence visited Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, which he noted is “the only military installation in America to host two of the three legs in the nuclear triad.” Minot is home to both the 5th Bomb Wing and its 26 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, and the 91st Missile Wing, which controls 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles at 15 launch sites and across North and South Dakota.
In his remarks to the assembled airmen, Pence addressed the nuclear dangers the Air Force’s Global Strike Command is defending against. He pointed out not only that the president “just a few short days ago, put Iran on notice,” but also repeated the warning that North Korea ought not underestimate the United States’ resolve.
“Anyone who would threaten our nation should know that America always seeks peace, but if we are forced to defend ourselves or our allies, we will do so with military power that is effective and overwhelming,” he said.
Watch for plenty more heated words this week as the president seeks not only to prepare the way for his trip, but also to draw the media’s attention away from the fact that his one-time campaign chairman was just indicted for money laundering, tax evasion, conspiracy, and failure to register as foreign agent.