White House shoots down claim that a member of Trump’s National Security Council implied that striking North Korea could help him in the midterm elections

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

  • A South Korean news report translated to English quoted a staffer on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council who was said to have mentioned that a limited strike against North Korea “might help in the midterm elections.”
  • The news stoked fears that the US might be more serious about preemptively striking North Korea than previously thought.
  • However, the source of the quote said that the staffer merely said something “to the effect” that a strike might score Trump some political points.

Foreign-policy experts and lawmakers were aghast following a South Korean news report that attributed to a staffer on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council the suggestion that a limited strike against North Korea “might help in the midterm elections.”

The alleged comment, which was sourced from a scathing opinion column published Friday local time in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, intimated that Trump would consider a limited strike against the North Korean regime “as a way out of his domestic political crisis” in midterm elections.

“Indeed, White House National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs Matthew Pottinger was reported as saying in a recent closed-door meeting with US experts on Korean Peninsula issues that a limited strike on the North ‘might help in the midterm elections,'” the English-translated version of the op-ed read.

The anecdote quickly spread on social media Friday night in the US, fueling speculation that the White House was seriously considering striking North Korea – potentially endangering the lives of millions of South Koreans and thousands of US citizens – in order to score political points.

But a closer look at the original article in Korean suggests that the quote should not have been taken a face value. The Korean version states that the source of the quote claimed that Pottinger said something “to the effect” that a limited strike “might help in the midterm elections.”

Hankyoreh told Business Insider that the author of the op-ed had used the quote from a previous story that was published one day earlier. That article, written by the newspaper’s Washington correspondent, also cites the source as saying that the comment attributed to Pottinger was implied, and not a direct quote.

Business Insider contacted the correspondent, who said that he had confidence in his source and acknowledged that the English version of the op-ed may have been misinterpreted during translation.

Nevertheless, foreign-policy experts quickly condemned the South Korean op-ed for not naming the source who relayed the alleged comment that’s being attributed to Pottinger – and for suggesting that Pottinger would make such a statement:

“I hope it’s a misquote or out of context. I suppose we should wait for an explanation. But good lord this looks bad,” one commenter said.

“Note: the sourcing here is incredibly flimsy. I want to be very clear: Pottinger saying it is bad. Anyone implying NSC staffer said it also bad,” another person said. “This not what the NSC is for, it is not what it does, and suggesting otherwise is gross. This is why Bannon did not belong there.”

Rep. Ted Lieu of California also expressed concern:

“If below quote is accurate, National Security Council Member Matthew Pottinger must resign immediately,” Lieu wrote on Friday night. “Whether to use military force and put our troops and other Americans at risk in N Korea must be based on US national security, not whether it would help in midterm elections.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Pottinger on Friday night and criticized Wall Street Journal Seoul bureau chief Jonathan Cheng, who tweeted the original story with attribution to Hankyoreh.

“Never happened. Pottinger is a Marine who served in two wars and doesn’t take military action lightly,” Sanders said. “Can’t believe@WSJreporter didn’t reach out for a comment before repeating such a reckless accusation.”