Trump’s Recklessness on North Korea Presents Our Greatest Risk

I don’t really understand why Trump has an affinity for the world’s most horrible leaders or why he picks fights with our allies. Back on November 13, 2018, I argued that “of all the reasons to remove President Trump from office, his love affair with Kim Jong Un is the most compelling,” and I still feel that way. It’s beginning to look like at least some Republican officeholders agree with me:

Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican facing re-election in 2020, blasted the Trump administration’s handling of North Korea sanctions at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday morning.

“We now have sanctions that are being waived by the president after Treasury, by law, issues them,” he said. “This body ought to be growing more and more frustrated with the U.S. continuing to change our policy while Kim Jong Un sits back and continues to develop fissile material, nuclear weapons without doing a doggone thing except watch the United States change its negotiating position.”

Sen. Gardner was referring to something that happened shortly before it was announced that the Mueller investigation had been concluded. On Friday, President Trump sent out a tweet that caused mass confusion and consternation:

I was as baffled as everyone else. It appeared then, and it has since been confirmed, that the Treasury Department had not imposed any “additional large scale sanctions” on North Korea. What they had done is impose sanctions on two Chinese shipping companies that do business with Kim Jong Un’s repressive regime. Somehow, the president had learned of this but had all the details garbled.

Now we have a better idea of what happened. A Chinese shipping company called Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd. was identified as having a business relationship with a North Korean company, thereby violating international sanctions. Another Chinese company called Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd., was similarly in violation for “operating in the transportation industry in North Korea.” This came up in a National Security Council meeting, and John Bolton decided that the Treasury Department should punish these two Chinese companies, which they did.

The sanctions on the two Chinese shipping companies were the subject of a National Security Council principals meeting last week, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Robert Blair, a national security aide to White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, warned that he didn’t think Trump would support issuing the measures. But National Security Adviser John Bolton, a North Korea hawk, disagreed and argued he knew Trump better than Blair, the two people said.

After the sanctions were announced, Bolton publicly applauded the move.

“The maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices,” he said in a tweet, adding that “everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.”

The next day, Trump’s tweet shocked former Treasury officials, who said it risked undercutting the entire U.S. sanctions effort only to benefit North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime.

We can probably make a decent guess at the series of events that unfolded between the National Security Council decision and the president’s tweet rescinding a completely different decision that was never made. Robert Blair probably had something to do with it. He was the one who argued in the meeting that Trump would not support sanctioning the Chinese companies. He is the one who was overruled on the basis that John Bolton knew the president better than he did.

However it actually went down, the president wound up behaving as Blair predicted he would, but he got all the details wrong. He sent out his tweet and no one knew what he was talking about.

At that point, the White House went into damage control. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee didn’t know what the hell was going on, so she rationalized the decision: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.” But no one knew which sanctions she was referring to.

Look at this disgraceful spectacle:

Trump stunned current and former government officials Friday afternoon with a tweet saying he had “ordered the withdrawal” of “additional large scale sanctions” against North Korea. For hours, officials at the White House and Treasury and State departments wouldn’t explain what he meant.

The president in fact intended to remove penalties Treasury had announced the day before against two Chinese shipping companies that had helped Pyongyang evade U.S. sanctions, according to five people familiar with the matter. Trump hadn’t signed off on the specific measures before they were announced but had given Treasury discretion to decide some sanctions as it saw fit, according to one person familiar with the matter.

Later Friday, in the wake of Trump’s tweet, the administration sought to explain away the move with a statement — initially requesting no attribution to anyone — that said the penalties against the Chinese companies hadn’t been reversed but the U.S. wouldn’t pursue additional sanctions against North Korea.

There were no additional North Korea sanctions in the works at the time, according to two people familiar with the matter.

So, as things stand, the sanctions against these two Chinese companies will not be rescinded, but North Korea has been reassured that the president will punish them only with the most severe reluctance. They’ve also had it reiterated to them that our president is “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”

When Sen. Gardner says “This body ought to be growing more and more frustrated with the U.S. continuing to change our policy while Kim Jong Un sits back and continues to develop fissile material, nuclear weapons without doing a doggone thing except watch the United States change its negotiating position,” it’s hard to argue against his point.

Yet, that still doesn’t explain why Donald Trump “likes” Kim Jong Un or why he wants his regime to preside over “one of the great economic powers” in the world. We can argue about Trump and Russia as much as we want, but there’s no way anyone reasonable can defend Trump’s behavior when it comes to North Korea.  Although I have suspicions, I cannot explain it. All I know is that this is definitely the biggest risk factor we’re facing from having this man serve as our president.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.