Trump Didn't Contradict Tillerson on North Korea, Adviser Says

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson departs a joint news conference by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and President Donald Trump at the White House on September 26. Tillerson and Trump seem to be contradicting each other on U.S. policy toward North Korea. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Donald Trump's apparent contradiction of his secretary of state's stance on whether to attack North Korea wasn't a contradiction at all, says one of Rex Tillerson's closest advisers. Instead, it was a sharp sign that diplomatic channels between the U.S. and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are "cooling," according to Tillerson's communications adviser, R.C. Hammond‏.

Trump created confusion early Sunday with a series of tweets saying he told Tillerson "he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man"—a nickname the president has given to the North Korean dictator.

The president's tweets followed Tillerson's meeting Saturday with Chinese officials in Beijing. There, Tillerson insisted his immediate goal is to "calm things down" in the standoff between Trump and Kim.

Over the summer, North Korea ramped up testing of long-range missiles that could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S., and early last month, the regime tested a nuclear weapon underground.

"We've made it clear that we hope to resolve this through talks," Tillerson said Saturday of the heightened nuclear tensions, after Trump promised in August to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea following a missile test.

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Tillerson said Saturday the U.S. seeks "a peaceful resolution" and has asked Pyongyang, through direct channels, "Would you like to talk?"

"Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!" Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday. He meant that Tillerson is wasting his breath trying to negotiate with North Korea's leader.

The contradictory statements by Trump and his top diplomat confused experts and former diplomats. "Can Trump actually believe this unprecedented [foreign policy] incoherence serves U.S.?" wrote Laura Kennedy, former deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the George W. Bush administration. Trump "publicly humiliated his secretary of state" with his comments, Kennedy said.

"Just after Tillerson meets with the Chinese and discloses U.S. efforts to engage NK, POTUS cuts him off at the knees," wrote Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center‏, a nonpartisan think tank. "Normally, I'd expect SecState to resign."

Hammond‏ doesn't see Trump's comments the same way. "Let's resign the idea of resignation. The President just made it clear to the Kim regime the diplomatic offer on the table is cooling," Hammond wrote on Twitter Sunday. He said the mixed signals aren't anything other than a sign that "the private and public diplomatic channels that have been on the table for months are cooling."

The State Department's chief spokesperson, Heather Nauert‏, made similar comments earlier in the day, even before Trump's tweets. "Diplomatic channels are open for #KimJongUn for now. They won't be open forever," she wrote.

This is not the first time the president and his secretary of state have seemed to contradict each other. After Trump promised "fire and fury" against North Korea in August, Tillerson said the president was merely speaking in threatening language that the North Korean dictator "would understand."

However, Trump's secretary of defense, James Mattis, has repeatedly said that a military option for dealing with the Kim regime remains firmly on the table.

After briefing Trump on military options to deal with North Korea on September 3, Mattis said during a press conference that any threat to the U.S. or its allies "will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming."

Hammond indicated on Sunday that Trump's position on using the military was nothing new, as America's "failed policy of strategic patience ended in February."

"Channels have been open for months," he wrote. "They've been unused and cooling for months."