WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump added more confusion to the future of U.S. military exercises in the Pacific with comments Wednesday morning stating the country could “save a fortune by not doing war games.”
The statement, made through his Twitter account, comes two days after his promise to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that America would cease some military exercises with South Korea in exchange for progress in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
In a press conference from Singapore on Tuesday morning, Trump called the exercises “tremendously expensive” and “provocative” given the tensions in the region.
“So under the circumstances that we are negotiating a very comprehensive, complete deal, I think it’s inappropriate to be having war games,” he told reporters. “Number one, we save money, a lot. And number two, it really is something that I think (North Korean officials) very much appreciate.”
After lawmakers voiced numerous concerns about that concession, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Capitol Hill later on Tuesday to downplay the impact of that pledge, saying that regular readiness training and military exchanges will continue with South Korean forces.
But Pentagon officials said they have no immediate plans to halt any exercises, and South Korean officials said the announcement caught them by surprise.
Republican senators briefed by Pence said they were still unsure exactly what the president’s promise means. Trump’s Wednesday morning tweet drew criticism from Democrats, who called his remarks rash and naive.
“I guarantee our military men and women were squirming when President Trump called our joint military exercises ‘provocations,’” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.
“These exercises and others that the military conduct around the world are designed to ensure that our service members are fully trained and ready for action. They are not a provocation. Adopting the North Korean view on American military exercises, which President Trump did, is nothing short of a public relations coup for Chairman Kim.”
Several Republicans also voiced worries. Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted Tuesday that he is “uncomfortable” with suspending military exercises. Senate Armed Services Committee member Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told reporters the joint operations are “legal” and said she sees no need to postpone them.
But others see more flexibility on the issue.
“Training continues, joint exercises can reemerge, if you need,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday. “You do joint exercises to deter the enemy, to say you don’t want to take on the United States and South Korea.
“You got a moment here — I don’t know how long it will last — to do something pretty historic. I’m okay with standing down on exercises to give North Korea breathing space to figure out what they want to do.”
Trump also took to social media on Wednesday to declare that “everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office” because “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea” after the summit this week.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.