Wednesday afternoon, the entire U.S. Senate took a bus ride to the auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, ostensibly to receive a high-level briefing from White House officials on North Korea, which has embarked on one of its regular displays of belligerence against its South Korean neighbors and the U.S. With the meeting concluded, those same senators have been released into the wild ― and based on their reactions, it’s not clear the meeting had any real purpose.
The meeting, which took place amid ratcheting tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, was billed as a classified briefing. Sen. Ben Cardin, the Democrats’ ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, told reporters earlier in the day, “I have heard nothing [from the White House].” He added that in his “congressional career, there’s never been a similar type of meeting held at the White House.”
According to reports, while the meeting was originally scheduled to take place in a secure room at the U.S. Capitol, President Donald Trump requested that the Senate briefing be moved to the White House facility. The auditorium was to be temporarily transformed into what is known as a “sensitive compartmented information facility,” so that top secret information could be securely shared.
That announcement was initially greeted with a dose of suspicion: Did it truly presage military engagement with the rogue nation, or was it merely a publicity stunt staged on the fly as Trump’s “100 day” deadline loomed? By the end of the day, such skepticism did not look entirely unfounded. After dragging the Senate to the White House to gather with officials, those same officials then made a trip of their own ― back up to Capitol Hill to meet with members of the House.
But as lawmakers emerged from the Senate briefing, a common sentiment emerged: confusion about the point of it all.
On CNN, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) sounded a similar refrain. “I learned nothing new at this briefing,” he said. “I’m not quite sure why we went all the way down to the White House.”
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said the briefing only “confirmed my deep concerns about this administration’s lack of a comprehensive strategy toward North Korea.”
According to Democratic Senate aides, the White House had pre-selected which members of the Senate could raise questions during the briefing, mostly limiting the privilege to committee chairs. This gave rise to speculation that the venue was actually changed so that White House officials could maintain control of the rules and format of the meeting. President Donald Trump made a short appearance at the briefing and delivered remarks that some members in attendance said sounded pre-scripted.
The White House added to the confusion over the trip by what it did next.
Vice President Mike Pence ― along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford ― went to Capitol Hill to brief all the members of the House.
Obviously, the membership of the lower house could not have fit in any of the White House’s meeting facilities ― that’s why it’s been common practice for White House officials to simply travel to Capitol Hill whenever legislators need to be met with in this fashion. When the Obama administration was working to get congressional support for the Iran nuclear deal, top officials traveled to the Capitol to give classified briefings to both chambers of Congress.
House members emerged from their briefing considerably less annoyed than their Senate colleagues. Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, told reporters he’s been to several briefings where he has left feeling like he didn’t learn much ― but that Wednesday’s briefing was not one of them.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House intelligence committee, echoed Engel’s praise. “I thought it was a good briefing. I thought they addressed the questions members had in a thoughtful way.”
House armed services committee chair Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) enthused about how the White House demonstrated some basic competence. “There’s tremendous confidence in the administration officials in key positions,” he said. “They knew what they were talking about, they were coordinated and did a great job.”
Unlike in the Senate briefing, members of the House were free to approach the microphones and ask questions, several members told reporters.
But Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, wasn’t as impressed. He told reporters Pence asked members to convey to the public and contacts in foreign governments the level of “resolve that the administration has.”
“I’m doing that right now by telling you that level of resolve is very weak,” said Sherman. “They’re unwilling to do anything that would put real pressure on China, or use our ability to impose tariffs, because these are things that Wall Street would reject.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s briefing, observers speculated that the Trump administration could be preparing to announce an aggressive new strategy against North Korea, possibly including a pre-emptive military strike. But the strategy laid out in the two briefings appeared to echo the previous administration’s approach: lean on China to put more pressure on North Korea and look for ways to squeeze North Korea’s struggling economy with additional sanctions. Engel said briefers did not bring up a pre-emptive military strike during the House briefing.
Between the two briefings, the White House released a joint statement from Tillerson, Mattis and Coats:
Past efforts have failed to halt North Korea’s unlawful weapons programs and nuclear and ballistic missile tests. With each provocation, North Korea jeopardizes stability in Northeast Asia and poses a growing threat to our allies and the U.S. homeland.
North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is an urgent national security threat and top foreign policy priority. Upon assuming office, President Trump ordered a thorough review of U.S. policy pertaining to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Today, along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford, we briefed members of Congress on that review. The president’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile, and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with allies and regional partners.
We are engaging responsible members of the international community to increase pressure on the DPRK in order to convince the regime to de-escalate and return to the path of dialogue. We will maintain our close coordination and cooperation with our allies, especially the Republic of Korea and Japan, as we work together to preserve stability and prosperity in the region.
The United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We remain open to negotiations toward that goal. However, we are prepared to defend ourselves and our allies.
If that statement is indicative of the tone and content of the meeting ― essentially re-asserting the status quo approach to North Korea ― then it’s unclear why the Senate had to travel to the White House to receive this information. As one Democratic Senate aide told HuffPost, the Senate “could have gotten the same briefing from the newspapers.”