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Robert Mueller, Kim Jong Un and the psychology of the president

Robert Mueller, Kim Jong Un and the psychology of the president
  (LAT)

Whether by insight or coincidence, North Korea's leadership chose the week of the one-year anniversary of Robert S. Mueller III's appointment as special counsel to probe how eager President Trump is to make a nuclear deal.

The answer: Very eager.

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Trump has made clear in his tweets and remarks that the investigation and the nuclear negotiations are intertwined in his mind.

To him, the "witch hunt" is getting in the way of his efforts to bring about world peace. A successful summit with Kim Jong Un would strengthen his case for ending Mueller's probe, Trump believes.

WHAT KIM LEARNED

One key to a successful negotiation is to learn as much as possible about the person on the other side of the table. North Korea learned something valuable about Trump this week.

In a statement from its official news agency on Tuesday and a tougher follow-up from a top official on Wednesday, the North Koreans cast doubt on the scheduled June 12 summit meeting in Singapore.

"If the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested," the North Korean vice foreign minister said. His statement specifically singled out Trump's national security advisor John Bolton, the hardest of hard-liners who in the past has defended the idea of a preemptive U.S. military strike against North Korea.

Trump's response: Disavow Bolton. But the president went further, as Noah Bierman wrote Thursday. He repeatedly said that in any nuclear deal, the U.S. would offer "protection" for the North Koreans — an incentive that goes far beyond the economic aid that past U.S. administrations have dangled in negotiations with Pyongyang.

Trump's offer of protection also went beyond what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had described Sunday when he outlined a package of incentives that the U.S. would provide to North Korea in exchange for its elimination of its nuclear weapons. As David Cloud wrote, Pompeo stressed the benefits to North Korea, while Bolton appeared to lengthen the list of what the U.S. would demand in return.

"The way that things are playing out right now, the choice for the president is Bolton or the summit," John Park, a Korea expert at Harvard's Kennedy School, told Bierman. "The early signs are that he's prioritizing the summit."

As Matt Stiles wrote from Seoul, the alternation between bellicose statements and peaceful ones is a classic North Korea ploy, which the ruling Kim dynasty has used for decades to keep its adversaries off balance. In this case, it also gave the North Koreans insight into Trump's thinking, which clearly puts a very high value on holding the summit and claiming a victory.

As Bierman noted, Trump has openly mused about winning the Nobel Peace Prize — an eagerness that's raising the stakes for the meeting with Kim and generating lots of anxiety among U.S. allies and within Trump's own staff.

HITTING THE ONE-YEAR MARK

Mueller's investigation provides even more incentive for Trump to go for a big win in Singapore.

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The president and his latest lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, have been publicly making the case that Mueller should wrap up his investigation. Mueller shows no sign of doing so. Right now, Trump lacks political support for a confrontation with Mueller. But a successful summit might strengthen Trump's hand — or at least make him believe he has a stronger position.

One year is not a long time for a complex investigation of the sort Mueller presides over. The investigation has sprouted several branches, secured multiple indictments and guilty pleas and is still likely in its early stage. Having trouble keeping track of it all? Chris Megerian and Sean Greene put together an excellent timeline of Mueller's first year.

And David Willman took a detailed look at the potential legal perils facing Trump's son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner.

Meantime, one of Trump's most energetic antagonists, Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels, the porn actress, faced renewed trouble of his own this week, a lawsuit by a former law partner alleging that he broke his promise to make a $2-million payment that was due Monday under the settlement of his firm's bankruptcy.

As Megerian and Bierman wrote, the very size of the Mueller investigation, and the multiple topics it has touched — Paul Manafort's work in Ukraine, Michael Cohen's alleged business misconduct, hush money payments to Daniels — have provided Trump with an opening to accuse the special counsel of overreach.

That accusation, repeated daily by Republican officials and amplified in conservative media, has helped Trump consolidate Republican support, they wrote. Because of that, Trump's overall approval rating, still very low by historical standards, has nonetheless improved noticeably since December.

In the late fall, frustrated Republicans had begun to doubt Trump's ability to get things done, and his support within his own party had drooped. Now, his party has closed ranks, and the cry of "witch hunt" has helped give them something to rally around.

That could boost GOP candidates in this fall's midterm elections.

SAVING JOBS — IN CHINA?

People following Trump's positions on foreign trade could be forgiven for feeling whiplash this week. After weeks of railing against what he called China's unfair trade practices, Trump suddenly tweeted that he wanted to help a Chinese technology company, ZTE, because "too many jobs in China lost."

The Commerce Department had leveled serious penalties against ZTE for its role in repeatedly evading sanctions against Iran and North Korea, making Trump's solicitude still more surprising.

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As Don Lee wrote, the timing of Trump's tweet was tied to the visit to Washington this week of a top Chinese official, who brought a set of proposals for deescalating the trade war between Washington and Beijing.

At the same time, the chances of negotiating a revamped NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada appear to be slipping away, Lee wrote. Because of waiting periods written into U.S. trade law, the administration needs to wrap up negotiations soon in order to get an agreement approved this year.

MORE TROUBLE AT EPA

The administration may finally have found someone willing to take on the task of running the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office responsible for California and nearby states. But there's a problem — the candidate, Mike Stoker, a former oil company executive and Republican leader from Santa Barbara, doesn't want to live in San Francisco, where EPA Region 9 has its offices.

As Evan Halper and Tony Barboza wrote, Stoker is trying to persuade EPA officials to let him commute from his home in Carpinteria to a satellite office in Los Angeles. But with the EPA already under investigation for, among other things, the expensive travel of its chief, Scott Pruitt, the agency's lawyers are balking at Stoker's demand.

Pruitt's agenda faces a different test over the issue of auto fuel economy rules. Auto executives got more than they bargained for when they asked Trump to ease fuel economy rules, Halper wrote. Pruitt took their request for regulatory relief and turned it into a full-scale assault on California's environmental rules. Late last week, auto executives met at the White House and some urged Trump to back off. He told EPA officials to try to negotiate an agreement with California.

Other aspects of the administration's environmental agenda have rankled Native American tribes, which already feel besieged, Halper wrote.

A SUPREME COURT RULING WITH A SURPRISE

As David Savage wrote, the Supreme Court this week opened the way for legalized sports betting nationwide, striking down a law that had prohibited states from authorizing betting on sports events. Congress can forbid sports betting nationwide if it wants to federalize the issue, the court's 6-3 majority ruled, but the Constitution doesn't allow it to order the states to do the work.

The immediate impact of the ruling will almost certainly be a big expansion of gambling and a battle over the dollars, as Jim Peltz, Hugo Martin and Lance Pugmire wrote. The major sports leagues, Native American tribes, existing casinos and race tracks will all vie for their cut of the action.

But the long-term impact may also include an unexpected winner. As Savage explained, the court's ruling that Congress can't force states to do the federal government's bidding is exactly the argument California has made in its battle with the Trump administration over so-called sanctuary policies. The federal government has full power to pass immigration laws, but can't force states to help enforce them, California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has argued. The court's ruling on gambling could strengthen his case.

In another immigration-related story, Joe Tanfani examined how confusion, calculation and fear are keeping DACA recipients from renewing their status. Some 9,000 DACA recipients have failed to renew their status and are now subject to deportation, government figures indicate.

THE REST OF THE WEEK'S NEWS

Trump gave a long-delayed speech on lowering drug prices, but he abandoned a key proposal from his campaign, Noam Levey wrote. Gone is Trump's proposal for Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Trump's nominee for CIA director, Gina Haspel, won confirmation after securing key Democratic support with a letter saying that the CIA's interrogation program during the Bush administration, which used techniques that are widely considered forms of torture, was a "mistake." Haspel now faces a series of difficult challenges, made all the more complicated by Trump's antagonistic relationship with the intelligence community, Megerian wrote.

One trouble spot that did not come up at all in Haspel's confirmation hearing was the Middle East. This week, Israeli soldiers shot and killed dozens of Palestinians who tried to breach the border fence separating Israel from Gaza. The administration's response was far more supportive of Israel's position than any of its predecessors, Tracy Wilkinson wrote.

Jim Puzzangherra wrote that Trump's nominees to the Federal Reserve board had harsh words for Wells Fargo because of the bank's consumer abuses, suggesting that the bank will face a tough fight to lift the cap on its growth that the Fed imposed as a penalty.

THEY'RE OFF AND RUNNING

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The 2020 presidential campaign is a long time away, but Democrats have already started to audition for key donors and party officials, as Evan Halper found when he attended one such session this week.

And in California, rich backers of charter schools are spending millions to elect Antonio Villaraigosa as governor, Seema Mehta and Ryan Menezes reported. Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg and Bill Oberndorf, a hedge fund manager who has contributed heavily to Republicans, are among the top sources of money for an effort to boost the former L.A. mayor in next month's top-two primary.

AVOIDING THE #METOO BACKLASH

Many elected officials accused of sexual misconduct in the past year have faced pressure to step down. Rep. Tony Cardenas has not. Sarah Wire explains why.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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