During a free-wheeling solo press conference that lasted more than an hour Wednesday, President Donald Trump again claimed that former President Barack Obama was close to starting a catastrophic conflict with North Korea, telling reporters that if he “wasn’t elected, there would have been a war” as his predecessor was close to “pressing the trigger.”
But those who worked in the previous administration say Trump’s assertion is simply untrue.
“President Obama thought you had to go to war. You know how close he was to pressing the trigger,” Trump said at the press conference, adding that “not thousands … millions of people would have been killed” in what “could have been a world war.”
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“If I wasn’t elected, you’d be in a war,” Trump declared, seeking to bolster his claim by implying that Obama had “essentially” told him so directly.
It is not the first time that Trump has portrayed Obama’s dealings with North Korea as a failure or implied the previous administration was on the precipice of war in an attempt to boost public perceptions about his own quest for a diplomatic resolution with Pyongyang.
In June, a week after his summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump suggested that the media would have named Obama a “national hero” if he too had “gotten along” with the totalitarian regime.
“If President Obama (who got nowhere with North Korea and would have had to go to war with many millions of people being killed) had gotten along with North Korea and made the initial steps toward a deal that I have, the Fake News would have named him a national hero!” Trump tweeted at the time.
Obama, came to power vowing to talk directly to America’s enemies. Eventually he traveled to meet Cuba’s President Raul Castro and spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by phone.
But he concluded it would be wrong to cave to North Korea’s provocations.
“This is the same kind of pattern that we saw his father engage in and his grandfather before that,” said Obama in 2013. “Since I came into office, the one thing I was clear about was, we’re not going to reward this kind of provocative behavior. You don’t get to bang your spoon on the table and somehow you get your way.”
Obama did warn Trump before he took office that North Korea’s nuclear program would present him with his toughest foreign policy challenge.
In an interview with Fox News following the Singapore summit, Trump said that Obama told him directly that he “essentially was ready to go to war with North Korea.”
“When I was talking to President Obama, he essentially was ready to go to war with North Korea,” Trump said about their November 10, 2016 meeting. “He felt you had almost to go to war, and I did ask [Obama]: Have you spoken to [Kim]? Do you think it would be a good idea to speak with him maybe?” Trump said.
On Wednesday, Trump again compared himself to the 44th President, asserting that Obama was on the verge of initiating a conflict that could have escalated into a world war — comments that prompted immediate push back from former national security officials who worked in the previous administration.
“The Department of Defense always looks at contingencies, but the Obama administration was consistently of the belief — informed by the best thinking and analysis from our intelligence community, war fighters, and diplomats — that diplomacy was the only viable option given what we knew would be catastrophic implications of a conflict on the Peninsula,” Ned Price, a national security council spokesperson in the Obama White House, said in a statement to CNN.
Price pointed out that Trump himself spoke of the massive casualties that would result from a conflict with North Korea, a consequence that did not prevent Trump warning Kim that the US is prepared to use “devastating” military action against Pyongyang last year.
But Trump’s tone has changed dramatically since the two leaders met face-to-face in Singapore earlier this summer and preparations are underway for a second summit between the two leaders despite there being little indication that North Korea has taken concrete steps toward the administration’s long-stated goal of denuclearization.
Trump again flaunted his relationship with Kim Wednesday, referencing a new “extraordinary letter” he received from the North Korean dictator and announcing that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will head to Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for another meeting between the two leaders.
Critics have pointed out that the Singapore declaration contained no firm commitments from North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs, and US officials have expressed frustration at North Korea’s evasion of sanctions.
Earlier this month, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley accused Russia of “cheating” and acting like a “virus” for helping North Korea evade international sanctions through ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas.
Despite signs that North Korea is sidestepping sanctions, Pompeo and Trump have said that the US campaign to exert maximum pressure on Pyongyang will continue and Turmp has repeatedly claimed progress.
“The missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction. Nuclear testing has stopped,” Trump told the General Assembly on Tuesday. “Some military facilities are already being dismantled. Our hostages have been released. And as promised, the remains of our fallen heroes are being returned home to lay at rest in American soil.”
CNN’s Allie Malloy, Nicole Gaouette and Kevin Liptak contributed reporting