“I said, ‘Look, we have ships headed there,’ ” President Donald J. Trump told the Wall Street Journal on April 12th, recounting the straight talk that he had handed to President Xi Jinping, of China, on the subject of North Korea. “He says he knows it very well. I said not only are there aircraft carriers, we have the nuclear subs, which you have to let him know.” “Him” was Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, whom Xi, apparently, was expected to intimidate with information that has now turned out to be false. Some degree of delusion always has to be factored in with Trump: when he referred to “the aircraft carriers” and, in another interview, with Fox Business, said that “we are sending an armada, very powerful,” he was widely understood to be referring to a single aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Vinson, and its support ships. In fairness, the Vinson would have been powerful and provocative enough—if it had, in fact, been speeding toward the Korean Peninsula, or the Sea of Japan, or even just the Pacific Ocean, which it was not. It was in the Indian Ocean, headed in the opposite direction, for exercises with what might be described as the Australian Armada. Just when you think you see the contours of Trump’s phantom menace, he comes up with a Phantom Fleet.
Perhaps Xi knew that what he was being told was nonsense; the movements of a carrier group can’t be so hard to conceal, except, perhaps, from the people in charge of America’s foreign policy. Trump wasn’t alone on this one; it’s not a case of him just causing trouble with his phone and Twitter account, rambling about bad hombres. As the timeline makes clear, it’s even worse. (The Wall Street Journal and the Times have good versions.) On April 9th, three days before Trump’s Wall Street Journal interview, the Navy had said that it had ordered the Vinson “to sail north”; H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, reiterated that news on the same day, framing it as a response to North Korea’s own provocative moves. Secretary of Defense James Mattis followed that up on April 11th by saying that the Indian Ocean exercises were off, and said that the Vinson was “just on her way up there.” That was false. The next day, the Navy said again that the Vinson had been “ordered north”; it added that the effects of that deployment on “other previously scheduled activities are still being assessed during the transit.” The Pentagon is now trying to sell that last bit as a quiet correction of Mattis, which the press mysteriously missed—but that is, simply put, ridiculous. For one thing, there’s the phrase “during the transit,” which assumes that transit had begun. Or is the idea that the Vinson was on its way to the Sea of Japan, in the sense that we are all on our way from cradle to grave, or that Trump is in transit from the Oval Office to choosing items for the gift shop in his Presidential library? A lot can happen in between.
And, even if the Navy meant to correct Mattis and McMaster, it might have noticed that the President also got it wrong, and that various Administration officials, including, inevitably, Sean Spicer, responded to questions about the Vinson not with clarifications of its movements but with mini-discourses—in Spicer’s case, about how the North Koreans should not be allowed to ever have a bomb that they already do have. The most Trumpian response may have come from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, as the Washington Post noted in a roundup, said, at a press conference in Moscow, that the Vinson was “routinely in the Pacific,” but that was just because the Pacific was the kind of place it tended to be, because it “sails up and down,” and that “there is no particular objective in its current course”—as if carrier group commanders were meandering mariners on pleasure cruises. Tillerson added that he “would not read anything into the Vinson’s current locations”; that was on the same day that Trump, in his interview, demanded that all too much be read into the ship’s location.
This had been part of the problem from the start: even if the Vinson had been where the White House said that it was, the Administration spoke about its mission in ways that were incoherent. The contradictions, the infighting, the muddling of motives, and the diplomatic recklessness of the Administration can be so distracting that it is possible to miss the fact that a fleet is in the wrong ocean. Where does the triage begin—with the facts or the follies? And, meanwhile, what, exactly, was Xi supposed to tell the Koreans? The White House and the Pentagon were either deliberately deceiving the American people and setting up our partners, and potential partners, for a shared mortification, or they just don’t know what they are doing. Or both. This was a group effort in humiliation.
The real location of the Vinson finally became clear on Tuesday, not because the Administration decided to treat the American people like adults and correct the story head-on but because Defense News, a specialized publication, noticed that the Navy had put out a picture of the Vinson crossing the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra—and thirty-five hundred miles from the Korean Peninsula—with a dateline of April 15th. Defense News confirmed the position and the date with its military sources, and noted, “Off the record, several officials expressed wonderment at the persistent reports that the Vinson was already nearing Korea.” Indeed, at that point, there were persistent reports that the United States and North Korea were nearing a shooting war. And is that any wonder?
The Vinson now really, truly is sailing toward the Korean Pacific, or at least the Western Pacific. Vice-President Mike Pence has spent the past few days in the region, and on Monday, wearing a brown leather bomber jacket, accessorized with what appeared to be military patches, he inspected the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. A few hours after his visit there, North Korea’s Ambassador to the United Nations said that the Trump Administration’s recent moves, including its supposed naval maneuvers, had “created a dangerous situation in which thermonuclear war may break out at any moment on the peninsula.” When CNN’s Dana Bash asked Pence about that on Tuesday, in Tokyo, he said, “For my part, in some odd way, it’s encouraging that they’re getting the message.” That message is a bit confused. Trump may believe that carrier movements are no different from marketing ploys, and require as little truth-telling, but North Korea is a real and dangerous country. The Trump Administration is dealing with a regime whose capacity for self-deceiving self-aggrandizement exceeds its own. Each may play on the other’s daydreams, and each can make them explode.