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Opinion: For Sen. Cory Gardner, “maximum pressure” on North Korea applies to everyone but Trump

Last week, North Korea launched its sixth short-range missile test in under a month, blaming continued military exercises between the United States and South Korea as a provocation. 

These missile tests continue to occur despite repeated talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. In response, Trump has called the military exercises with our ally “ridiculous” and demanded South Korea “pay substantially more money” to defend itself against North Korea.

Lawrence Korb

If you want a sense of how alarming and potentially destabilizing this statement was from an American president, the Washington Post summed it up well in a headline: “Trump again appears to take North Korea’s side against his own military, allies.” 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, a self-styled North Korea hawk who chairs the influential Subcommittee on East Asia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made news last year for objecting when Trump appeared to undercut the Pentagon by calling off military exercises with South Korea. So you would expect Gardner to speak out over this latest abdication of responsibility from Trump. 

But you would be wrong. Gardner has said nothing. And his silence has revealed the extent of his willingness, like that of many Republicans, to subordinate their own beliefs in the service of Trump. 

Since arriving in the Senate, Gardner has been trying to carve out a name for himself on North Korea by blaming former President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” for North Korea’s continued aggression and development of nuclear weapons.

With Trump’s surprise victory in 2016, Gardner seemed to find a new champion who would implement his preferred policy of “maximum pressure,” mostly involving sanctions and an aggressive military and diplomatic posture. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The conservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, even devoted an entire feature to Gardner, dubbing him “Mr. Maximum Pressure.” 

As tensions between our countries ratcheted up through 2017, with Kim Jong Un threatening strikes against U.S. territory, Gardner supported Trump’s saber rattling.

When Trump escalated his rhetoric further by bragging about his “bigger button” and dubbing Kim Jong Un “rocket man” in a speech at the United Nations, Gardner reacted by saying he would have used different words, but approved the message. 

Then a funny thing happened. 

Trump upended decades of precedent by unilaterally announcing in 2018 that he would meet personally with the North Korean dictator.

The summit would not follow terms negotiated in advance or carry any preconditions, something that even casual observers of American foreign policy would understand was a very big departure for previous presidents and Republicans in the Congress.

At this point, Cory Gardner had a choice: either defend Trump or defend his principles. Unfortunately, Gardner backed Trump. On Fox News in May 2018, Gardner claimed that the Trump-Kim meeting reflected “a continuation of the success this president’s already had with Kim Jong Un and the North Korea regime.” 

Over a year later, however, we have seen the culmination of Gardner’s so-called success: elevation of the North Korean regime, a continuation of the nuclear threat and the president of the United States cozying up with Kim Jong Un. 

So what happened to Sen. Gardner’s maximum pressure doctrine? As recently as last month, Gardner tweeted that the “United States must maintain the maximum pressure campaign until North Korea fully denuclearizes.” In other words, whatever song and dance Trump has been doing with Kim has inexplicably not ended America’s maximum pressure policy in Gardner’s eyes. 

The trouble for Gardner and many of his Republican colleagues is that pressure on North Korea was released the moment Trump agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Kim.

But instead of defending his policy, Gardner has been laboring for months to paper over this gaping hole in his message on North Korea, almost to the point of arguing that up is down to avoid a public disagreement with the president. 

To be clear, “maximum pressure” is by no means the only correct policy with North Korea and risks escalation to war, as the events of 2017 showed.

However, no policy will ever be correct if self-proclaimed experts on the issue are incapable of using words with any common meaning to articulate their views. And even now, Gardner has been busy pushing the same maximum pressure policy on Iran as America risks blundering into another unnecessary conflict in the Middle East. 

The result is that Colorado and the country have a senator in Gardner who has been demanding confrontation around the world when the person who needs his attention the most is President Donald Trump. 

Lawrence Korb served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense for five years in the Reagan Administration and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.