Defense Secretary James Mattis has scoffed at a New York Times story that claims the National Security Council does not feel the Pentagon has provided President Trump with robust military options to counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“I got a kick out of it, frankly,” Mattis told reporters Friday morning at the Pentagon. “It is what it is, but I could not find any relation to what’s actually going on.”
The New York Times story is part of a growing narrative in the mainstream media that Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, is at odds with Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about whether to attack North Korea.
McMaster reportedly favors launching a “bloody nose” strike to get North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to freeze his nuclear program, while Mattis and Tillerson are worried that even a limited attack could explode into full-scale war, according to the Times and other media outlets.
During a conference call last July, Tillerson and Mattis were overheard complaining that the National Security Council was becoming too aggressive toward North Korea, not knowing that others could hear what they were saying, the New York Times reported on Thursday citing unnamed White House officials.
On Friday, Mattis implied the New York Times account of the conference call was wrong, but he did not say outright whether he and Tillerson had been inadvertently overheard criticizing the National Security.
“I thought it was especially humorous that we didn’t realize we were still in the teleconference – that one of the people on the screen was talking with us at the same time,” Mattis said. “I guess we were talking to ourselves and imagining the person on the screen.”
Mattis said that he and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, have briefed Trump several times on military options for North Korea. Only once did a member of the National Security Council not attend such a briefing, and that was because Vice President Mike Pence was traveling at the time, he said.
“A couple weeks afterwards, the vice president came to the Pentagon and we briefed him on the exact same brief that the chairman and I did,” Mattis said.
When asked about his relationship with McMaster, Mattis said he has “no problems” with the National Security Council.
“I’ve been there twice this week on other issues, and both times the first place I stopped was with him, and we discussed how the meeting was going to go that day,” Mattis said.
Since President Trump took office, North Korea has made rapid strides in developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland. The State Department is leading government efforts to apply pressure to the North Korean regime.
Both Mattis and Tillerson believe a preemptive strike against North Korea is not out of the question, but they are confident that a diplomatic solution to the standoff will eventually be found, the New York Times reported.
When asked about Mattis’ comments on Friday, a New York Times spokeswoman said the newspaper maintains its reporting is accurate.
“We stand by our story,” said Ari Isaacman Bevacqua.