By the time the Trump administration was asked about the USS Carl Vinson and its strike force, its imminent arrival had been emblazoned on front pages across East Asia.
WASHINGTON — A week ago, the Trump administration declared that ordering a U.S. aircraft carrier into the Sea of Japan would send a powerful deterrent to North Korea and give President Donald Trump more options in responding to the North’s provocative behavior. “We’re sending an armada,” Trump told Fox News.
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, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula.
Administration officials said Tuesday they had been relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there 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 Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, all of which perpetuated the false story that a flotilla was racing toward the waters off North Korea.
By the time the administration 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 President Xi Jinping of China were chatting over dessert during a meeting in Florida.
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With Trump himself playing up the show of force, Pentagon officials said, rolling back the story became difficult.
The saga of the wayward carrier might never have come to light, had the Navy not posted a photo online Monday of the Carl Vinson sailing south through the Sunda Strait, which separates the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. It was taken Saturday, four days after the 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, according to Defense Department officials. Administration 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,” a spokesman, Michael Short, said of Spicer.
Privately, however, other officials expressed bewilderment that the Pentagon did not correct its timeline, particularly given the tensions in the region and the fact that Spicer and the national-security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, were publicly answering questions about it.
“The ship is now moving north to the Western Pacific,” the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, Dana White, said Tuesday. “This should have been communicated more clearly at the time.”
The miscues began Sunday, April 9, when the public-affairs office of the Navy’s 3rd Fleet issued a news release saying that Adm. 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 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 meeting with Xi at his Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, with a message that the United States had run out of patience with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, and its nuclear and missile programs.
That Sunday, McMaster told Fox News the deployment was a “prudent” move, designed to give the president “a full range of options to remove” the threat posed by Kim.
What the Navy did not say was that the Carl Vinson had to carry out another mission before it could set sail north: a long-scheduled joint exercise with the Australian navy in the Indian Ocean.
South Korean and Japanese news media, as well as The New York Times, reported Harris’ order as evidence that the crisis was intensifying.
On April 11, Trump stoked the fears of military action with a Twitter post: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
Later that day, Spicer was asked by a reporter, who assumed the Carl Vinson was on its way north, why the U.S. had decided to send the carrier group to the Sea of Japan.
“A carrier group is several things,” Spicer replied. “The forward deployment is deterrence, presence.” He added, “I think when you see a carrier group steaming into an area like that, the forward presence of that is clearly, through almost every instance, a huge deterrence.”
He did not point out that the Carl Vinson was not, in fact, steaming into the area and would not be for 14 more days. A senior administration official said the press secretary was using talking points supplied by the Pentagon. He was discussing the rationale for sending a carrier, this official said, not confirming the ship’s schedule.
An hour after Spicer left the podium, Mattis, the defense secretary, reinforced the perception of ships racing to the scene. Speaking at the Pentagon, he said the Navy disclosed the Carl Vinson’s itinerary in advance because the exercise with the Australians had been canceled. “We had to explain why she wasn’t in that exercise,” he said.
Mattis, however, had conflated two things: Harris had canceled only a port call for the Carl Vinson in Fremantle, Australia, according to Pentagon officials.
After a week of war drums, fueled by the reports of the oncoming armada, tensions subsided when the weekend passed with only a military parade in Pyongyang and a failed missile test.
Then, Monday, the Navy posted the photo of the Carl Vinson, bristling with fighter jets as it passed Indonesia. It was seen by Defense News, a trade publication, which broke the news that the ship was thousands of miles from where most of the world thought it was.