Four warships Donald Trump claimed were being sent to North Korea last week, were in fact steaming in the opposite direction to take part in military exercises with the Australian Navy over 3,500 miles away.
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and three other ships in its fleet, which Mr Trump described as an “armada”, were said to have been deployed to the Sea of Japan as a “show of force” in response to North Korea’s missile tests, military officials said on April 8.
“We are sending an armada. Very powerful. We have submarines. Very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business Network.
White House press Secretary Sean Spicer explained that having the flotilla in the Sea of Japan within striking distance of Pyongyang gave President Trump “options in the region.”
But it later emerged that at the time the statement was made, the ships were not steaming towards North Korea, but to a scheduled exercise in the Indian Ocean.
At the time, the comments from the US government heightened tensions with Pyongyang, with North Korea’s state news agency describing the supposed deployment as “nothing but a reckless action of aggression to aggravate the tensions in the region”.
On Tuesday, White House officials said the statements had been based on information from the Defence Department, The New York Times reports.
But officials in the Defence Department then described a confused sequence of events leading up to the announcement of the direction of the “armada”.
With the President using the ships to bolster a muscular show of force, officials said that challenging the narrative became difficult.
The location of the flotilla was revealed by the US Navy itself, which posted a photo online of the aircraft carrier passing through the Sundra Strait between Sumatra and Java in Indonesia.
The photograph was taken four days after Mr Spicer had said the ships were on the move towards the Sea of Japan.
Trade publication Defense News saw the photograph and spotted that the ships were at least three thousand miles from where the White House had briefed them as being.
But the Defence Department has said the fleet is now travelling north and should arrive near the Korean peninsula early next week.
Todd Weiler, the former Assistant Secretary of Defence for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, told The Independent the catalogue of errors could be due to a lack of political leadership within the Pentagon.
Mr Weiler said he had not heard of any specific miscommunication issues but the lack of political appointees “creates the obvious lack of direction on the President’s policies”.
“It allows career civil servants that are temporarily sitting in these positions to conduct their personal agendas, which can be counter to the former and current President’s agenda,” Mr Weiler said.
He also noted however that it could just be a problem with the way the White House interprets facts.
“The Navy would never have said or suggested” the USS Vinson was to arrive in the Sea of Japan “without knowing”, Mr Weiler said.
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