If it weren’t for Friday’s media-shattering news of Robert Mueller submitting his final report to the attorney general, one of the main stories this weekend would surely be Trump’s order-by-tweet cancelling North Korean sanctions that, it turns out, no one knew existed.
The White House and Treasury Department announced on Thursday sanctions against two Chinese shipping companies believed to be helping North Korea circumvent current international sanctions. This appeared to be in line with Trump’s self-described “maximum pressure” strategy. After all, on February 28, Trump left the second summit with “Dear Respected” Kim Jong Un in Hanoi without any progress toward denuclearization. Shortly after the summit’s collapse, reports emerged that North Korea was rebuilding its largest missile engine test site, the same one that it had dismantled during initial negotiations with the United States.
Right after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin unveiled the sanctions against the Chinese companies, National Security Adviser John Bolton celebrated on Twitter: “Important actions today … Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.” Bolton appears to have been cheerleading for more sanctions—apparently the only thing he does when he’s not cheerleading for outright nuclear war—even before the news of North Korea rebuilding its missile test site. Thursday’s sanctions announcement was a small but meaningful victory for North Korea hawks.
But victories, however large or small, are short-lived in this White House. Behold Trump’s Friday tweet: “It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!” Confusion, according to multiple news reports, reigned.
No sanctions had been announced Friday. Officials in the White House and across government initially assumed that Trump had meant to refer to the sanctions imposed the day before. (Let that sink in: whole levels of the federal government were paralyzed over the president’s clumsy grammar on Twitter.)
It was only hours later that the embarrassing truth emerged: Trump “was referring to a future round of previously unknown sanctions scheduled for the coming days,” the Washington Post reported. Based off conversations with White House officials, the Post concluded that “the move to forestall future sanctions represents an attempt by the president to salvage his nuclear negotiations with North Korea in the face of efforts by national security adviser John Bolton and others to increase punitive economic measures against the regime of Kim Jong Un.”
This must be crushing for Bolton, who Trump hired almost exactly a year ago in part to help direct North Korea policy. A year later, though, it seems like Trump sees Bolton less as an adviser and more as a stage prop. Indeed, according to the Post, Bolton suffered a tremendous indignity in Hanoi: During last month’s summit “officials kept Bolton from attending Trump’s dinner with Kim because of concerns that he could hurt the discussions.”
Bolton has been cut out of North Korea policymaking—and that’s a good thing.
Trump’s instincts on North Korea since his initial bout of thermonuclear name-calling (“little rocket man”) have been, for the most part, spot on. Any war, much less nuclear war, against the country is untenable. Trump’s insistence on negotiations and constant communication with the regime, coupled with a willingness to walk away as he did in Hanoi, is the right way to establish lasting security on the peninsula. The potential looming tragedy is that Trump’s ineptitude as a negotiator could scuttle his own efforts.
So why doesn’t Bolton resign? Because he’s had his way on pretty much everything else:
“Bolton has won on many core issues—such as scrapping arms control and multilateral treaties … On his watch, the administration has pulled out of major agreements with Russia and Iran. In September, he declared the International Criminal Court ‘dead to us.’ He has fashioned a Venezuela policy that, in recent weeks, has been mostly about Cuba, a longtime Bolton target. He has played a central role in the administration’s efforts to cut cooperation with the United Nations, an organization that Bolton has long derided as incompetent and corrupt.”
Trump appears to like Bolton’s bullying postures (even though he hates his moustache) because they project the tough-guy image Trump wants others to see. But Trump’s willingness to compromise that image in favor of actual statecraft already makes him a better navigator of world affairs than one of George W. Bush’s most trusted advisers. That’s a low bar to clear, to be sure, but Trump has cleared it nonetheless. If only such were the case for all the other issues under Bolton’s portfolio.