The USS Carl Vinson, 1,100 feet long, has a displacement of 97,000 tons and sails with two nuclear reactors and about 60 aircraft. It’s escorted by a guided-missile cruiser and two destroyers.
So how did President Trump lose it?
In an interview with Fox Business taped on April 11, Trump confirmed a dramatic escalation in the nuclear standoff with North Korea, saying he was redirecting Navy ships to the area. “We are sending an armada — very powerful,” Trump said.
Tough talk — except the Vinson strike group was not heading toward North Korea. It was continuing previously scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean. Four days after Trump spoke of his Korea-bound armada, a military trade publication noticed that photos released by the Navy showed the carrier off Indonesia — 3,500 miles from the Korean Peninsula — and apparently heading the other way.
Was the Vinson looking for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? Had Percy Jackson lured it into the Sea of Monsters, from which it would emerge somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle with Amelia Earhart, Grand Duchess Anastasia and Jimmy Hoffa?
There has been much speculation about Trump’s nonsense talk about his “armada.” Administration officials suggested a miscommunication between the Pentagon and the White House. Others suspected deliberate psy-ops against North Korea and China.
I put the question to my former colleague Tom Ricks, military writer and national security specialist at the New America Foundation. Ricks’ hypothesis: Trump didn’t have any idea where his armada was. “He probably saw it on TV.”
Trump, who tends to eschew security briefings, spends much of his day watching Fox News. And Fox News was beating the drums of war in the days and hours before Trump spoke of his armada:
“The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, which had been previously scheduled in port in Australia, has turned around and will be proceeding out to the Korean Peninsula.”
“The president ordered the aircraft carrier group to reverse course.”
“The super aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is now steaming toward the waters off the Korean Peninsula.”
The U.S. Pacific Command had indeed said on April 8 that the Vinson would sail north, attaching the move to rising tensions with North Korea. But there wasn’t any rush. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson encouraged people not to read too much into “routine” movements, saying there was “no particular objective.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said “she’s just on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent.”
Trump’s version sounded more like Fox News’.
This would appear to be another disturbing case of life imitating cable news. I’ve argued before that Trump’s many falsehoods aren’t necessarily lies; he seems not to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, believing that whatever he says is true.
Ricks, author of the forthcoming history “Churchill & Orwell,” argues that Trump’s tendency to speak nonsense isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to national security. Mattis and his generals are running foreign policy while the president, in over his head, hangs out in the White House watching TV and getting a nudge from the first lady when it’s time to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem at the Easter Egg Roll.
“We’re now experiencing what a decapitation strike would be against the U.S. government,” Ricks said. “You can have nobody, effectively, at the White House and still run the country. It’s a post-nuclear environment.” Trump may have no clue, but his national security team is “solid,” he argues. “The less the White House knows these days, the better.”
And allies — notably Germany’s Angela Merkel, whose hand Trump was reluctant to shake after a tense meeting — are coming to discount Trump because they recognize he is out of his depth. “Foreigners understand that you can’t stand by anything Trump says,” Ricks argues. Instead, the world is learning to “watch what he does, not what he says — and watch what his underlings do.”
At home as well as abroad, people are coming to recognize this emperor’s state of undress. Gallup last week reported that only 45 percent of Americans think Trump keeps his promises, down from 62 percent in February.
The Carl Vinson’s peregrinations show why. On April 11, White House press secretary Sean Spicer proclaimed that it was “a huge deterrence” to “see a carrier group steaming into an area like that.” Eight days later, he argued that his previous hogwash had become true: “We have an armada going towards the peninsula. That’s a fact.”
Yes, it’s a good thing people don’t believe this White House.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.