How Did the Trump Administration Lose an Aircraft Carrier?

The White House said the USS Carl Vinson was headed for North Korea as it sailed the opposite direction—the latest example of a communications failure inside the executive branch.

The USS <i>Carl Vinson</i> in the South China Sea on April 8
The USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea on April 8 (U.S. Navy via Reuters)

A certain amount of unpredictability is a virtue in foreign policy. When one’s adversaries—and perhaps one’s allies—don’t know precisely what a country will do, it gives that country a little extra power in the relationship. Like all virtues, it turns into a vice when used in excess. Donald Trump, Fred Kaplan recently argued, offers an extreme test of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” the Vietnam-era approach of letting enemies think Nixon might really be insane and do anything.

As my colleague Kathy Gilsinan wrote last week, the hazards of this approach are on display in the latest American standoff with North Korea—a contest between two leaders who delight in bellicose rhetoric and erratic action. “When two leaders each habitually bluster and exaggerate, there’s a higher likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake based on a bad guess,” she wrote, including the threat of nuclear war. Even for those who espouse unpredictability, the presumption is that at least the putative madman has some sense what’s going on, even if no one else does. The point is the appearance of unpredictability, not true chaos.

That brings us to a baffling news item on Tuesday.

On April 9, as tension between the U.S. and North Korea over missile tests rose, the U.S. announced it was dispatching the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier, and its retinue, toward the Korean peninsula.  “U.S. Pacific Command ordered the Carl Vinson Strike Group north as a prudent measure to maintain readiness and presence in the Western Pacific,” a Navy spokesman said at the time.

There was one flaw in the plan, as The New York Times reports:

The problem was, the carrier, the Carl Vinson, and the four other warships in its strike force were at that very moment sailing in the opposite direction, to take part in joint exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean, 3,500 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula.

The result is the sort of thing that would comical if it didn’t involve nuclear brinkmanship. The announcement of the Vinson’s movement jacked up the tension between Washington and Pyongyang, which called the travel “reckless” and thundered, in a statement to CNN, “We will make the U.S. fully accountable for the catastrophic consequences that may be brought about by its high-handed and outrageous acts.” Had the North Korean government, unsure how to interpret Trump’s tough rhetoric, actually started a hot war, the Vinson would have been 3,500 miles away, rather than ready to act.

How did this happen? Was it Trump’s vaunted unpredictability? Nah:

White House officials said on Tuesday they were relying on guidance from the Defense Department. Officials there described a glitch-ridden sequence of events, from a premature announcement of the deployment by the military’s Pacific Command to an erroneous explanation by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—all of which perpetuated the false narrative that an American armada was racing toward the waters off North Korea.

The confusion might never have become public if not for another miscue: The Navy posted a picture of the Vinson steaming through the Sunda Strait in Indonesia, far from where the White House had placed it—a case of the government failing to take simple steps to cover its own tracks.

The boat blunder is only the latest example of how failure to communicate between units is undermining the Trump administration’s ability to articulate and execute a policy. In this case, the White House blames the Pentagon for providing misleading information and a premature press release, though a fuller story will probably emerge over time. (It’s important to remember that Mattis, a decorated and respected Marine general, was supposed to be one of the more competent figures in an administration full of thin government resumes.)

On Monday, it was the White House and the State Department that were odds. Even as State was expressing concerns about the apparently tainted referendum process that handed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping new powers, Trump was calling Erdogan and offering what appeared, from the White House’s official statement, to be full-throated congratulations on the result, devoid of any concern for electoral legitimacy or worries about Erdogan’s increasingly repressive governance.

Last week, the administration was also making a hash of its messaging on another hotspot, Syria. In the wake of missile strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the world wanted to know what Trump’s strategy in Syria would be. Answers were hard to come by. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, on the one hand, that “any and all” crimes against innocents would be subject to U.S. punishment and yet that the U.S. expected the political process in Syria to decide Assad’s fate. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley was saying elsewhere, at the same time, that there was no political solution in sight, and suggesting that the U.S. would pursue a strategy of regime change. Flustered, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry asked journalists for help deciphering the American line. “We have to figure out what this country’s strategy is,” Maria Zakharova said. “No one understands it right now. If you do, share your appraisal with us.”

These are not the hallmarks of tactical unpredictability. They are a sign of a government that cannot decide what its strategy is, in which different figures are attempting to make policy via public statements; they are the sign of an administration that cannot effectively communicate within its constituent parts, perhaps because of lack of experienced staff, or perhaps because so much of the executive branch remains badly understaffed. They are, perhaps most importantly, an indication of how Trump is trying to employ his “fake it ’til you make it” campaigning style as a governing technique, too.

But the consequences once you’re actually in office are different. In March, my colleague James Fallows wrote that a credibility crisis hung over Trump’s head like the sword of Damocles:

Something has happened to every new president, and something will happen to Donald Trump. It is inevitable. And when that something occurs, it is also inevitable that his administration will need to say, Trust us on this. That’s in the nature of foreign emergencies.

That particular moment has perhaps not arrived yet, though North Korea seems like one strong contender for the eventual theater. Incidents like the Vinson misdirection show the problem that Trump faces. It’s not just that Americans or other leaders may not take Trump’s honesty for granted; it’s that he risks being unable to follow through and prove himself credible.

As it happens, President Obama faced a somewhat similar situation in 2010. Responding to North Korean provocations, the U.S. was sending the carrier USS George Washington toward the peninsula. Some officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wanted to send the Washington close to China, as a way of showing strength to Beijing as well. Obama, Mark Landler reported, overruled them. The ship was already on course; he didn’t want to go around changing that.

“I don’t call audibles with aircraft carriers,” Obama told Clinton and Gates.

Trump, by contrast, is content to call audibles with aircraft carriers. That’s a risky strategy in the best of times, but it’s even more dangerous when the quarterback tends to fumble the snap and his offensive line isn’t working from the same playbook.