The Senate Is Having An Unusual North Korea Briefing & It's Unclear Why

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On Wednesday afternoon, according to multiple reports, all the members of the U.S. Senate loaded up into buses and headed to the White House for a briefing on North Korea. It's an event that's been scheduled for days, and has raised eyebrows for its highly unusual nature ― it's simply not normal for the entire Senate to trek out to the White House.

According to CNN's Elizabeth Landers, President Trump spent about 14 minutes at the briefing, which took place in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building just west of the White House grounds. The details of what was discussed remain a big unknown, although given the rapidly deteriorating state of relations between the U.S. and North Korea ― never even remotely friendly, and increasingly militaristic and confrontational since the start of the Trump administration ― the specter of military action looms large over the meeting.

According to Reuters, Maryland Democratic senator Ben Cardin expressed an eagerness to learn what the administration's actual plan is with regards to North Korea. "I really don't understand what is the president's game plan to get North Korea to change its calculation," Cardin said, adding that in his 30 years in Washington, he'd never seen anything like Wednesday's midday congressional trip to the White House.

To say that tensions have been escalating lately would be an understatement. North Korea is one of just eight countries throughout the world in possession of nuclear weapons (nine if you include Israel, which is not public about its arsenal but is widely known to possess them). Its frequent missile tests over the past several years have stoked fears that it may successfully engineer an intercontinental ballistic missile, although they do not presently seem to have that capability. A test earlier this month is believed to have failed spectacularly, with the South Korean military saying the missile exploded just moments after launch.

For many, however, the presence of Trump in the White House adds a worrying wrinkle to the equation. Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump showed little to no knowledge of the basic inner workings of the American nuclear arsenal, beyond his clear willingness to use it. Furthermore, Vice President Mike Pence's recent comments while in South Korea, including that "the age of strategic patience is over," made it clear that military action is entirely on the table.

Even considering the immense deference Congress has shown the president in making military decisions over the last few decades, any such action in North Korea could spur the body to insist on its constitutional power. As The Nation's Washington editor George Zornick noted on Wednesday, just hours prior to the briefing, Democratic representative Jerry Nadler is making that case, arguing that the administration has "zero legal authority" to launch strikes without congressional approval, absent evidence of an imminent attack on American soil or against American forces.

That's all slightly premature speculation, however, as it's not even clear what information was presented to the members of the Senate. And the briefing, needless to say, is classified, so that's not likely to change very soon.