President Donald Trump is “gaslighting” the planet about North Korea’s nukes, according to a well-connected analyst. So Congress is moving on multiple fronts to force the White House to come clean on its negotiations with Pyongyang.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would, in the words of an aide involved in the process, give the administration some diplomatic “training wheels” and ensure that officials don’t agree to give away more concessions before North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are fully evaluated.
Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee is demanding an official assessment from the nation’s top intelligence chief on whether the president’s positive outlook on the negotiations holds water.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, compared the administration’s recent declarations of success regarding the negotiations to “gaslighting.”
“The statements coming out of the White House bear no relationship to reality whatsoever,” said Lewis. “It’s very clear that the intelligence community is not just saying that North Korea is expanding their capabilities. They are also saying that North Korea had a concrete plan to deceive the U.S. about locations and numbers.”
The expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear production capabilities in recent months is essentially incontrovertible, said Lewis, even without access to specific intelligence reports. “I can make similar conclusions based on analysis of satellite images,” he added.
The problem, lawmakers from both parties say, stems from a dearth of information in the days and weeks after Trump’s historic summit Kim.
“I have no insight into anything that’s occurred in the negotiations,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast. “It’s really hard to—I mean, we have no insight. I’m not sure that that much even occurred [at the Singapore summit]. … The nuclear threat in North Korea is the same as it was two months ago.”
After the two leaders met last month in Singapore, they signed a joint memorandum in which both countries committed to “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” But so far, there has been little to show for it. And last weekend, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with top North Korea officials in Pyongyang, the North Korean foreign ministry released a statement accusing the U.S. of carrying out a “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization.” That was after Pompeo dubbed the talks “productive.”
Now, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) are introducing legislation that would essentially establish new guardrails for the administration—and force it to tell Congress what’s really going on with the talks.
“We should all share the concern that this all appears to be unfolding according to North Korean conditions, on a North Korean timeline, and for North Korea’s ends,” Menendez told The Daily Beast. Gardner, who chairs the foreign relations panel’s East Asia subcommittee, said in an interview that extra layers of oversight were necessary due to the “pattern of misbehavior from Kim and the Kim family over the decades.”
The North Korea Policy Oversight Act would require the administration to report every 30 days to Congress on the progress of denuclearization talks, and it mandates that the director of national intelligence and the secretary of state brief lawmakers after each round of talks between the two countries. It would also express Congress’ will that any final deal be submitted to the Senate for approval through the treaty process, and that economic sanctions remain in place until Pyongyang takes verifiable steps toward scrapping its nukes. Notably, the legislation also aims to prevent Trump from withdrawing forces from the region—something he has privately mulled.
“The preliminary to denuclearization is to understand the program and have a full disclosure of the program verified by people on the ground. That’s where you start. There’s no indication we’re at the start point yet. We’ve already given up a lot without even getting to first base,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), a senior member of the foreign relations committee, told The Daily Beast. “The president said this is going to be a treaty—how do they expect us to take up a treaty if they’re not keeping us informed? It’s hard enough to pass up a treaty.”
The North Korea Policy Oversight Act might be a hard sell to the administration, however.
“If you’re a citizen that values checks and balances, this legislation could provide more balance,” said Abigail Grace, who until recently worked on the Asia portfolio at the National Security Council. “If you’re the executive branch and you maintain that you have the sole authority to conduct foreign policy, that bill is going to seem onerous.”
That’s especially true for an administration that seems to have had trouble keeping its story straight. On Wednesday, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, asking whether the president’s optimistic statements about Pyongyang’s overall posture are in line with U.S. intelligence assessments.
Grace said that the letter presented an “imminently reasonable” request. “There’s a long history of departments and agencies giving briefings to congressional committees that provide oversight and appropriations,” said Grace.
The president has declared that the nuclear threat from North Korea has been eliminated in the aftermath of his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. But NBC News and The Washington Post reported last month that North Korea was in fact secretly increasing its nuclear production and never intends to fully give up its stockpile. Moreover, the White House sent out a statement attributed to the president on June 22 stating that North Korea remains an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the U.S.”
In his letter, Warner asked Coats to brief the congressional intelligence committees on North Korea’s willingness to fully denuclearize and to accept “intrusive” inspection requirements. Three congressional sources familiar with the process told The Daily Beast that lawmakers are under the impression that U.S. officials are still trying to determine whether North Korea is serious about moving forward with the denuclearization process.
“I want to get reassured that the intelligence community has not changed its view that North Korea is a threat, because I believe it is still a threat. We have no indication that we’re going to have a verifiable agreement on how we denuclearize,” Warner told The Daily Beast. “We need to make sure responsible folks in the government are telling us as an equal branch of government the full facts and truth.”