Politics

Quiet Day at White House Leaves Pence a Nuclear Stage

From North Dakota, warnings for North Korea

Vice President Mike Pence conducts a news conference after the Senate Policy luncheon in the Capitol in March. On Friday, he delivered a warning to North Korea after seeing U.S. nuclear weapons. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

White House officials on Friday seemed intent on bucking tradition by not making news. But 1,600 miles away, Vice President Mike Pence did so after getting a close-up look at the U.S. nuclear arsenal, warning it would be deployed in “overwhelming” fashion if North Korea strikes first.

“Now, more than ever, your commander in chief is depending on you to be ready,” Pence told personnel at nuclear-armed Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. 

In Washington, the White House was uncharacteristically still. A West Wing chimney filled the North Lawn area with the autumnal aroma of burning firewood. But there was no conflagration at the daily press briefing, as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders provided few details about how much President Donald Trump wants Congress to provide to fight the opioid epidemic, which on Thursday he declared a “national health emergency.”

Sanders criticized Democrats for not supporting an administration request to Congress for $45 billion to fight the problem that was included in a since-scuttled GOP health care bill. White House officials hope members of both parties will support funding down the road. But she declined to say whether the $45 billion figure remains the White House’s desired amount. 

(Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., responded by asking the White House to support legislation he has introduced to provide $45 billion for the opioid effort.)

Sanders also did not have much to say about a $300 million contract for relief work on Puerto Rico to Trump-linked Whitefish Energy Holdings, which also is based in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s hometown.

The White House and federal agencies had no role in awarding, Sanders said, pinning all responsibility for awarding the contract to local officials.

And when asked when the Trump administration intends to implement new sanctions on Russia that were slated to kick in on Oct. 1, Sanders merely told reporters that a multi-agency review has been completed. But she did not say when those sanctions would be implemented.

There was even a light moment at the executive mansion when Trump invited children of media members who were there for Halloween festivities into the Oval Office.

“I cannot believe the media produced such beautiful children,” Trump quipped as the kids filed in.

But during remarks shortly after Sanders left the podium in Washington, Pence delivered a message for the government in Pyongyang at Minot.

Should the North Korean regime attack the United States or one of its allies, the U.S. response will be “overwhelming” and “effective,” the V.P. said.

The North Dakota base is home to nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable B-52 bomber aircraft.

The vice president described himself and the administration plans to pursue all “economic and diplomatic” tools to coax the Kim Jong Un regime to give up its nuclear arms and long-range missile programs. He described Trump officials as believers in the “peace through strength” philosophy that calls for a powerful military to deter global bad actors and would-be foes. And he promised the administration would increase annual Pentagon budgets to that end.

But he also, in a section of his prepared remarks about tensions on the Korean Peninsula, said America’s enemies “should never doubt” the lethal capabilities of the United States military.

“All options are on the table,” he said of the administration’s efforts to handle the North Korean threat.

“America always seeks peace,” Pence said, but it “forced” by North Korea to defend America or its allies, a U.S. response would be “effective and overwhelming.”

The line is a watered-down version of a warning Defense Secretary James Mattis made to Pyongyang outside the White House on Sept. 3 following a meeting called by Trump with several of his top national security officials.

“We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,’ Mattis said that day, flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. “As I said, we have many options to do so.”

On Friday, Mattis visited the Demilitarized Zone on Friday and struck a similar tone, Reuters reported

“Our goal is not war, but rather the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Mattis said, as North Korean soldiers kept watch.

The president may visit the same area during his upcoming trip to Asia in November. 

Trump in recent months has not ruled out a U.S. military strike on the North from his “fire and fury” threat in August to an implicit threat to use nuclear weapons. 

On Aug. 9, he signed an order to “renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal.” leading to speculation that an expansion of the nuclear stockpile was on the table. 

That was the position of candidate Trump. But earlier this month he reversed himself, calling such a move “unnecessary” after a report emerged alleging he told his team in July he wanted just that.

On Friday, Pence said: “Our administration is committed to modernizing our nuclear deterrent.” Modernizing — in military programmatic and budgeting parlance — means upgrading and maintaining existing platforms rather than building additional models.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., an Intelligence Committee member and former chairwoman of the panel, this week said she expects the administration’s first Nuclear Posture Review to call for developing new nuclear weapons.

Feinstein, who also is the ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for warhead development and maintenance, called for attendees at a Thursday anti-nuclear weapons conference in Washington to “march if you have to” against Trump’s nuclear policies.

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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