WASHINGTON -- The White House sought to fend off criticism Wednesday that President Donald Trump and other top officials have misleadingly said a Navy strike group was heading to the Korean Peninsula to deter North Korea when it was actually moving in the opposite direction.
US officials came under fire following revelations that the group of ships led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson were thousands of miles away from Korea despite earlier statements suggesting they would be in the region to deter the North when tensions soared last weekend.
Last week, Trump said he sent an "armada" to Korea. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the strike group was heading to the Western Pacific after calling off previously planned exercises with Australia. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster also said it was a "prudent" decision to send the ships to deter the North.
But recent Navy photos have shown that the strike group was actually about 3,500 miles away from Korea on Saturday and heading in the opposite direction to participate in joint exercises with Australia before heading off to the Korean Peninsula.
The group is now on its way to Korea and is expected to arrive there next week.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said nothing's wrong with Trump's statement.
"The president said that we have an armada going towards the peninsula. That's a fact. It happened. It is happening, rather," he said at a regular briefing. He also said that a US Pacific Command statement talked only about the ships' "ultimate destination."
Earlier in the day, Vice President Mike Pence said Trump's point was he's ready to defend allies.
"The point the president was making is that we're ready. We're ready to defend our allies in this region. We want to send an unambiguous message especially to North Korea that any attempt to use weapons of any kind against our allies in this region or American forces abroad will be defeated and will be met with overwhelming force," Pence said in an interview with CNN.
A senior administration official was also quoted as telling CNN that it was because of a miscommunication.
Trump and other officials made the remarks about the strike group's dispatch to Korea amid fears that the North could carry out its sixth nuclear test to mark the birthday of national founder Kim Il-sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un, which fell on Saturday.
That led many to believe that the group would be heading directly to Korea from Singapore and could have been on standby in waters near Korea around Saturday. Some even raised speculation the US may be contemplating a preemptive strike against the North.
The remarks about the group's dispatch has further driven up the already high tensions, with North Korea responded to the reported dispatch with harsh rhetoric. Pyongyang also attempted to launch missiles, though they exploded shortly after launch. (Yonhap)