WASHINGTON — America was on the brink of war. As President Barack Obama prepared to leave office, he was contemplating yet another conflict in Asia, where the United States had already fought twice since the 1950s without winning. This time, the enemy had nuclear weapons. The potential for devastation was enormous.
Wait a minute — don’t remember Mr. Obama’s near-war with North Korea? Neither do the people who were working for Mr. Obama at the time.
But President Trump has been telling audiences lately that his predecessor was on the precipice of an all-out confrontation with the nuclear-armed maverick state. The way Mr. Trump tells the story, the jets were practically scrambling in the hangars.
“I believe he would have gone to war with North Korea,” Mr. Trump said in the White House Rose Garden on Friday. “I think he was ready to go to war. In fact, he told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea.”
The notion that Mr. Obama, who famously equivocated about a single missile strike against non-nuclear Syria to punish it for using chemical weapons against its own civilians, would have started a full-fledged war with North Korea seems hard to imagine, to say the least. But this presumption has become part of Mr. Trump’s narrative in patting himself on the back for reaching out to North Korea to make peace.
The argument is that if Mr. Obama were still in office or if anyone else had succeeded him, the United States would invariably have ended up confronting North Korea with armed aggression to reverse its nuclear weapons program. But Mr. Trump’s diplomacy has avoided this supposedly inevitable outcome, meaning it has been a success even though so far North Korea has not eliminated a single nuclear warhead or given up its missiles.
“That was going to be a war that could have been a World War III, to be honest with you,” Mr. Trump said at a cabinet meeting last month.
“Anybody else but me, you’d be in war right now,” he told reporters a few days later. “And I can tell you, the previous administration would have been in war right now if that was extended. You would, right now, be in a nice, big, fat war in Asia with North Korea if I wasn’t elected president.”
Then he repeated it to a national audience in his State of the Union address: “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea with potentially millions of people killed.”
It is impossible to prove a negative, of course, but nobody who worked for Mr. Obama has publicly endorsed this assessment, nor have any of the memoirs that have emerged from his administration disclosed any serious discussion of military action against North Korea. Several veterans of the Obama era made a point of publicly disputing Mr. Trump’s characterization on Friday.
“We were not on the brink of war with North Korea in 2016,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, wrote on Twitter.
John Brennan, Mr. Obama’s C.I.A. director, told NBC News, “President Obama was never on the verge of starting any war with North Korea, large or small.”
Mr. Trump bases his argument on the single extended conversation he has ever had with Mr. Obama. In November 2016, Mr. Obama invited the man elected to succeed him to the White House for a 90-minute discussion of the issues awaiting him.
Mr. Trump’s account of that conversation has evolved over time. At first, he said that Mr. Obama told him that North Korea would be the new administration’s toughest foreign policy challenge, which seems plausible enough. Only later did Mr. Trump add the supposed war discussion.
Mr. Obama’s office had no comment on Friday, but former aides said there was no active consideration of military options at the time. Mr. Obama, who opposed the Iraq war from the start, was deeply leery of military action by the end of his presidency and had defined his foreign policy at that point as “don’t do stupid stuff,” except he used an earthier term than “stuff.”
In an email on Friday, Mr. Rhodes said Mr. Obama did warn Mr. Trump about North Korea in their meeting, but hardly suggested that he was ready to use force. “He talked about the threat from North Korea’s program — where it stood, what our concerns were,” Mr. Rhodes said. “That’s very different from saying you’re about to go to war!”
Jen Psaki, who was Mr. Obama’s White House communications director, likewise dismissed the notion that the departing president told his successor he had been ready to send in the bombers. “There is no scenario where I could see him saying that given he isn’t an alarmist and that is exactly what everyone has been trying to avoid forever,” she said.
North Korea at that point had bedeviled the last three presidents, all of whom had sought without success to pressure it to give up its nuclear weapons program through sanctions, sabotage and diplomacy.
Although Mr. Obama and his predecessors never formally took a military option off the table, it has always been a far-fetched alternative. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or other places where the United States has gone to war in recent years, North Korea could respond with nuclear weapons that could kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Even its conventional artillery is so close to Seoul, the South Korean capital, not to mention the tens of thousands of American troops stationed nearby, that it could wreak havoc without nuclear escalation.
The Defense Department once estimated that North Korea could inflict 250,000 casualties on Seoul alone through conventional artillery, according to a Rand Corporation report. A 100-kiloton nuclear blast on a single affluent district of Seoul would result in an estimated 1,530,000 casualties, including 400,000 dead, according to the report.
The only president who has vocally threatened war on North Korea in recent times is Mr. Trump. After a provocative intercontinental ballistic missile test, Mr. Trump in the summer of 2017 threatened to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea and a month later told the United Nations General Assembly that he would “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the United States.
In January 2018, after North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, talked of having a nuclear button, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
All of that changed a few months later when Mr. Trump agreed to do what none of his predecessors had done and meet with North Korea’s leader. He and Mr. Kim got together in Singapore and, as the president put it later, “we fell in love.” He shows off friendly letters he has received from Mr. Kim to visitors in the Oval Office, and the two leaders are to meet for a second time this month in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“It was a very tough dialogue at the beginning,” Mr. Trump recalled on Friday. “Fire and fury. Total annihilation. My button is bigger than yours and my button works. Remember that? You don’t remember that. And people said, ‘Trump is crazy.’ And you know what it ended up being? A very good relationship. I like him a lot and he likes me a lot. Nobody else would have done that.”