WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Just hours before North Korea fired a failed ballistic missile, President Trump spent his morning enjoying the blue, breezy weather on Florida’s eastern coast here Saturday, zipping around the greens of his private golf club.
The day before, the president also passed the morning playing golf at Trump International Golf Club, according to someone who saw him on the course.
And in addressing North Korea’s latest provocation, Trump – who spent at least a portion of both evenings greeting guests at his private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida – deferred to his Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general.
“The president and his military team are aware of North Korea’s most recent unsuccessful missile launch,” Mattis said in a two-sentence, emailed statement Saturday night. “The president has no further comment.”
On the question of North Korea, one of the United States’s most immediate geopolitical threats, Trump was uncharacteristically quiet over the weekend, instead leaving it to his team of deputies, as well as Vice President Mike Pence, to articulate the administration’s policy toward the totalitarian regime.
In addition to Mattis’ terse statement, the vice president – who arrived in Seoul for a 10-day trip through Asia shortly after the failed launch – briefly addressed North Korea’s latest action at a dinner of U.S. troops and their family members, and a White House foreign policy adviser on the trip briefed reporters traveling with Pence, as well.
“This morning’s provocation from the north is just the latest reminder of the risks each one of you face each and every day in the defense of the freedom of the people of South Korea and the defense of America in this part of the world,” Pence said. “Your willingness to step forward, to serve, to stand firm without fear, inspires.”
Mattis’ statement, as well as Trump’s lack of comment Saturday night, stood in stark contrast to the president’s behavior just two months ago, when North Korea claimed in mid-February that it had successfully tested a new type of missile with nuclear capabilities.
In response then, Trump – who was again at Mar-a-Lago for a visit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – scrambled his traveling press corps to deliver an in-person statement that evening, after he and his aides seemed to pour over the latest intelligence in full view of his club members.
But as tensions mounted earlier in the week between the United States and North Korea – which is forging ahead with its nuclear weapons program and eager to build a missile that can reach the United States – the president departed the White House Thursday for what he seemed to hope would be a quiet Easter weekend holiday.
He brought with him only three junior staffers and K.T. McFarland, a deputy national security adviser who was recently demoted and offered a posting as ambassador to Singapore as a concession.
The president was in touch, however, with Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Mattis, with whom he spoke several times between Thursday and Saturday, as the situation unfolded, according to a senior administration official.
But in the hours after the failed launch, Trump – who previously has said the United States is willing to intervene on its own if others in the region don’t step up – allowed his advisers, including McFarland and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, to outline the administration’s approach on the Sunday shows.
McMaster and McFarland offered a notable contrast to Trump’s previously bellicose statements. Both seemed to be calling for patience and tamping down the possibility of imminent military intervention.
McMaster, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said that the United States is exploring “a range of options” to respond to an increasingly provocative North Korea but said the administration would like “to take action short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst.”
McFarland, meanwhile, downplayed the significance of yet another failed missile launch, saying the early Sunday test was “not a surprise.”
“Even in the last year, President Kim of North Korea has launched over 30 missiles,” McFarland said. “Most of them have failed. So it didn’t come as a surprise to us. We were expecting something surrounding the birthday of his grandfather.”
Saturday was the anniversary of the 1912 birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and the current leader’s grandfather.
Both McMaster and McFarland also talked up the role China could play in bringing North Korea to heel – and urged some patience on that front. About 80 percent of North Korea’s trade is with neighboring China, giving the country a good deal of leverage, they suggested.
McFarland said that an array of strategies were discussed when Chinese President Xi Jinping recently visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
“It’s like your kids in the back of the car on a long trip saying, ‘When are we going to get there?’ ” McFarland said. “Well, in this case, I think we should give the Chinese president some opportunities and some time, as well as pursuing the economic and diplomatic pressures that we have and that our allies have that we can bring to bear on North Korea.”
Trump, who save for muscling Neil M. Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court has no real achievements on Capitol Hill of which to boast, has weathered a series of national security and military crisis less than 100 days into his presidency, and seems to enjoy both the process and the projection of strength involved.
After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad deployed chemical weapons on his own people, Trump worked with his military advisers and responded swiftly, deploying 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian airfield.
Aides to the president said he enjoyed the orderly process, overseen by McMaster, which resembled the streamlined operations of a more traditional White House, with Trump requesting a range of responses and each adviser weighing in with their expertise, before the president made a final decision.
But Trump seemed determined to avoid conflict of just about any sort this weekend – North Korea or otherwise. He spent his three days in Palm Beach shuttling between Mar-a-Lago and Trump International Golf Club, spending almost no time outside the cocoon of his two palm tree-lined properties.
On Saturday, after golf, the president’s motorcade took a different, longer route than usual to return to his private club, coming back from the north and along the coast. The circuitous trip allowed Trump to avoid the protesters who had gathered along the main thoroughfare just west of Mar-a-Lago, to call on him to release his tax returns.
Trump, a normally prolific – and brash – user of Twitter, also spent the weekend largely quiet on social media; his last tweet heading into the weekend concerned his enthusiasm about the upcoming White House Easter Egg Roll.
On Sunday morning, Trump briefly took to Twitter, boasting about his electoral college victory in the 2016 presidential election and asking why his tax returns mattered in light of his win, and extolling his efforts to rebuild the military.
He also seemed to admit he was using the Treasury Department’s currency report – which did not label China as a currency manipulator – as a political bargaining weapon.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly said he would brand China a currency manipulator on Day One of his administration. On Day 83, he officially backed off that course.
“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korea problem?” he wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “We will see what happens!”
But then the president retreated back into his calm Palm Beach world. He attended Easter services at Bethesda-by-the-Sea church here with his wife, Melania, son Barron and daughter, Tiffany, from his second marriage, before returning to Mar-a-Lago for an annual brunch and Easter egg hunt with his eldest sons, Don Jr. and Eric, and their families, according to an aide.
One intrusion from the outside world came from Don Jr., who over the weekend was sporting a green T-shirt that read “Very Fake News” in block white letters – a reminder of all those who, the president believes, have treated him unfairly.