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Senate staff perplexed by unusual White House private briefing on North Korea

Senate staff perplexed by unusual White House private briefing on North Korea

Set for Wednesday
Senate staff perplexed by unusual White House private briefing on North Korea
Press Secretary Sean Spicer speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington on April 17, 2017.
Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON - The White House announced Monday it would host an unusual private briefing on North Korea for the entire U.S. Senate, prompting questions from lawmakers over whether the Trump administration intends to use the event as a photo op ahead of his 100-day mark.

Press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that the lawmakers would be briefed Wednesday by several senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He emphasized that the meeting plan had been conveyed by Senate leadership and that the White House was serving "as the location."

Yet the location at the White House perplexed lawmakers who have grown accustomed to such briefings taking place in a secure location on Capitol Hill, where there is more room to handle such a large group.

Past administrations have often held briefings for smaller groups of about two dozen or fewer lawmakers in the White House Situation Room. But they have traditionally sent high-level aides to Capitol Hill to hold discussions with larger groups in secure, underground locations.

A senior Trump administration official said the meeting with senators will take place in the auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the building next to the White House that houses most of the National Security Council. The auditorium will be temporarily turned into a "sensitive compartmented information facility," or SCIF, which is the term for a room in which sensitive national security information can be shared, the official said.

Such facilities are configured to withstand eavesdropping or other technical snooping.

Aides to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referred all reporter questions to the White House. Other Senate leadership staffers signaled that most, if not all senators in both parties are expected to attend the White House briefing.

But the unusual location left many staffers scratching their heads.

In recent years during debates surrounding Syria's civil war, terrorist attacks in Europe and the FBI's ongoing investigation into Russian interference in U.S. elections, Cabinet secretaries and senior law enforcement officials have traveled to Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers.

"These briefings are always, always, always done in the SCIF up here," one Senate aide, who was not authorized to talk on the record, said on Monday. "Does it mean classified information is going to be shared in an unsecured setting? Or that we're not hearing about classified material?"

Another senior aide, who also requested anonymity, said it was Trump's idea to hold the meeting at the White House.

"I heard this came from Trump himself, that in a nutshell he said, 'why don't we have them up here instead?' " the aide said.

The senior administration official confirmed that Trump offered the White House complex as a location and McConnell accepted.

Congressional staffers suggested that the briefing's proximity to Trump would make it easy for him to "drop by" and perhaps take over the briefing.

The image of senators meeting with Trump at the White House on a top national security concern could be touted by the White House as a key moment in the run-up to Trump's first 100 days in office - a milestone the president has mocked in recent days but that his administration is working aggressively to promote.

Trump has sought to strike a tougher tone on North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang's latest weapons tests, which included a failed missile test two weeks ago. On Monday, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley hosted counterparts from the U.N. Security Council in Washington to discuss the security situation in Syria and North Korea, and Trump also met with them and posed for a picture with the group, official said.

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