A week ago, the White House said that ordering a US aircraft carrier into the Sea of Japan would send a powerful deterrent to North Korea and give US President Donald Trump more options in responding to the North’s provocative behavior.
“We’re sending an armada,” Trump told Fox News that afternoon.
The problem was that the carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, and the three other warships in its strike force were that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian navy in the Indian Ocean, 5,600km southwest of the Korean Peninsula.
White House officials on Tuesday said that they had been relying on guidance from the US Department of Defense.
Defense officials described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from an ill-timed announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to an erroneous explanation by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis — all of which perpetuated the false narrative that a flotilla was racing toward North Korea.
By the time the White House was asked about the Carl Vinson, its imminent arrival had been emblazoned on front pages across East Asia, fanning fears that Trump was considering a pre-emptive military strike.
It was portrayed as further evidence of the president’s muscular style days after he ordered a missile strike on Syria while he and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) were chatting over dessert during a meeting in Florida.
With Trump himself playing up the show of force, rolling back the story became difficult, Pentagon officials said.
The saga of the wayward carrier might never have come to light had the US Navy not posted a photograph online on Monday of the Carl Vinson sailing south through the Sunda Strait, which separates the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra.
It was taken on Saturday, four days after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described its mission in the Sea of Japan.
Now, the Carl Vinson is finally on a course for the Korean Peninsula, expected to arrive in the region next week, defense officials said.
White House officials declined to comment on the confusion, referring all questions to the Pentagon.
“Sean discussed it once when asked and it was all about process,” spokesman Michael Short said of Spicer.
However, privately other officials expressed bewilderment that the Pentagon did not correct its time line, particularly given the tensions in the region and the fact that Spicer, as well as US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, were publicly answering questions about it.
The miscues began on April 9 when the public affairs office of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet issued a news release saying that Admiral Harry Harris Jr, the Pacific commander, had ordered the Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier, and its strike force — two destroyers and one cruiser — to leave Singapore and sail to the Western Pacific. As is customary, the US Navy did not say exactly where the carrier force was headed or its precise mission.
Given the timing, it hardly needed to: Trump had just wrapped up a two-day summit with Xi at the Mar-a-Lago resort with a message that the US had run out of patience with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and its nuclear and missile programs.
That Sunday, McMaster told Fox News that the deployment was a “prudent” move, designed to give the US president “a full range of options to remove” the threat posed by Kim.