Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker hurried into an elevator. Sen. Marco Rubio quickly ducked into the Capitol Visitor Center television studio. And Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain shut down reporters’ repetitive questions.
No Republican senator could be found Tuesday who was willing to question President Donald Trump’s threat before the United Nations General Assembly to “totally destroy” North Korea unless it gives up its nuclear arms and long-range missile programs, which he views as a direct threat to the sovereignty and security of the United States and its allies.
Still, GOP senators were not exactly running to microphones to endorse Trump’s signaling that he is poised to wipe an entire country off the face of the earth. At least a dozen of them declined to discuss the speech — most of them begging off on the grounds that other business Tuesday morning prevented them from tuning in, or even looking at news bulletins on their mobile devices.
“I’m just going to have to let that all sink in for a while” was a typical comment, from Armed Services member Mike Rounds of South Dakota.
Corker joked with reporters that he has learned to read a full transcript of any set of Trump remarks before commenting, with the Tennessee senator saying he was worried some key piece of context might be buried within the commander in chief’s full body of words.
White House aides were quick to cite one specific portion of Trump’s U.N. address to note that he is making a distinction between the North Korean government and targets related to its nuclear and missile programs — as well as to crippling its military — that would be struck if Pyongyang attacked the United States or its allies.
“No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea,” Trump said Tuesday. “It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.”
A senior White House official said Tuesday that “the president merely restated decades of U.S. policy.”
“The policy of the United States is not regime change,” the senior official said, after Trump said his goal is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. “But if the United States is attacked by North Korea, that would effectively be the end of the [Kim] regime.”
The White House’s defense of the speech is that such an operation would never target the entire country for destruction, but civilians and nongovernment infrastructure would likely become victims of any U.S. military actions there.
If Trump’s aides were telling senators that on Tuesday, it did not make them more willing to comment. Even some of Trump’s top Republican critics, including some the president and his allies are targeting during the 2018 midterms, were reluctant to go there.
“I don’t want to react until I see the statement in context,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican whom Trump wants to see ousted by a primary challenger. “And I haven’t.” Rubio reported the same, then disappeared into the TV studio with a wave.
McCain told reporters they could keep asking, but he had no comment on Trump’s threat to annihilate another country.
“I do not comment anymore on what the president says. I comment on what the president does,” the senior Arizona senator said. “I have better things to do with my time than respond to everything that President Trump says.”
Joining Corker, Rounds, Flake and McCain in declining to talk about Trump’s address were GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Jim Risch of Idaho, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Todd Young of Indiana.
Only a few Republican senators endorsed Trump’s threat, which was highly unusual for any U.S. president.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky praised Trump for “making it loud and clear” that any U.S. military strike would be catastrophic for North Korea. And Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said the dramatic word choices were appropriate because “it’s hard to talk rationally to someone who’s not rational.”
The most effusive praise came from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who, as the longest serving member of the Republican majority, is the Senate president pro tempore and third in the line of presidential succession. “It’s about time somebody talked turkey to that little bastard over there,” Hatch said of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
And while McCain declined to applaud the president’s tough stance, he expressed confidence that Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army three-star general, are “examining the options, all of which are very tough … because of the failure of three different presidents.”
A spokeswoman for Speaker Paul D. Ryan referred to a tweet by the Wisconsin Republican in which he said the president sent a “great message” to the world.
Great message from @POTUS at the UN. American leadership is needed now more than ever. We must stand by our allies and confront our enemies.— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) September 19, 2017
Democratic senators, however, were not as tight-lipped.
“That is certainly, in a speech before the United Nations, an inappropriate statement,” said Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Foreign Relations ranking member. “It just adds more challenges to a situation that’s already dangerous.”
And Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, another Foreign Relations member, said the president’s message concerned him because “rather than engaging with the rest of the world in a way that might inspire them to follow American leadership, his tone was more bellicose and threatening than might be constructive in this situation.”
Rema Rahman and David Hawkings contributed to this report.