A week ago, a lot of people held their breath, worried that the U.S. and North Korea were headed for a showdown.
In the end, however, a much-rumored North Korean nuclear test didn’t happen, Kim Jong Un’s effort to launch a ballistic missile turned into an embarrassing flop and the Trump administration did not have to decide whether to back its threats with actual force.
The result this week was something we’ve seldom seen since President Trump took office — a week without a crisis.
Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
THE WRONG-WAY CARRIER
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the latest flaring of tensions with North Korea was the revelation that a U.S. Navy carrier strike group that administration officials had said was steaming toward the Korean peninsula was, in fact, thousands of miles away and headed in the other direction.
Exactly how the misstatements came about remains somewhat unclear: Military officials decided to send the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and the rest of its flotilla north to Korea, but did not expect the ships to arrive in the North Pacific until May. In official statements and news accounts, however, that timeline was ignored, and, from the president on down, the administration gave the impression that the carrier would be in position to take part in U.S. retaliation if the North Koreans went ahead with another nuclear test.
As Bill Hennigan wrote, whether those inaccurate statements resulted from miscommunication between the Navy and the country’s civilian leadership or confusion or deliberate misstatement, they had the effect of heightening tensions at an already fraught time. They also hurt the administration’s credibility with South Korea.
But the carrier incident, while embarrassing, doesn’t change any of the underlying realities of the North Korean nuclear problem. The essence of the dilemma, for Trump, as it has been for the previous three occupants of the White House, is that there are no really good options, as Hennigan and Barbara Demick wrote.
From Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama, several types of diplomacy have been tried to little avail. A covert sabotage program, reportedly ordered by Obama, appears to have had some impact on slowing North Korea’s progress, but not stopping it.
As for military approaches, in 1994, when the North Korean nuclear program was in its infancy, the Clinton administration considered a military strike, but backed off, in part because of Pentagon estimates that as many as a million South Koreans could die if the North Koreans retaliated. Casualties today would likely be higher because the population of Seoul’s northern suburbs has grown, putting even more residents within range of North Korean artillery. And, of course, the North now has several nuclear weapons.
Trump is hoping for help from China, and has executed a remarkable 180-degree turn in his rhetoric about that country, praising Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In the meantime, the U.S. sent Vice President Mike Pence to Seoul where he met with officials and repeated that the Trump administration is ending the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” toward the North’s nuclear ambitions.
GEORGIA SHOWDOWN — ROUND 1 ENDS INCONCLUSIVELY
Special elections to Congress often take on outsized importance — in part because they come along when political strategists and political reporters have nothing else to focus on.
This week’s election in a suburban district outside Atlanta fit that pattern. In the end, as Cathy Decker reported, the main Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, fell just short of the majority he needed to win the seat outright in a primary open to candidates from both parties. Now, voters in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District can look forward to nine weeks of a runoff campaign between Ossoff and Karen Handel, the Republican who came in second.
Both sides spun the results as a victory: Democrats noted that in Georgia, as in an earlier special election in Kansas, their candidate did far better than is typical in a district that leans heavily to the GOP. Republicans noted that the Democrats still didn’t win, and, although Handel got fewer than half as many votes as Ossoff, the several Republican candidates together outpolled him.
As Decker wrote in an analysis of the race, the results underscored that the Republicans face a Trump problem: He has mobilized and energized Democrats in ways not seen for decades. But, she said, the results also pointed to challenges that Democrats face — how to harness that fervor in ways that won’t scare off less partisan, and often more conservative, swing voters.
The evidence that Republicans see the risks ahead, especially in the well-educated, suburban precincts where Trump has fared poorly, can be seen in the behavior of the party’s incumbents.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), for example, built a reputation over his years in Congress as a fierce partisan, staging high-profile hearings to attack the Obama administration. In an Orange County district that Trump lost by more than 7 points, Issa barely held onto his seat last year. Now, as Sarah Wire reported, Issa has taken a series of steps toward the center.
In an interview, the congressman rejected any such talk of repositioning on his part as “bullshit.”
HEALTH AND TAXES
Trump insisted during a brief news conference on Thursday that his administration is getting closer to a deal with Republicans that would revive the Obamacare repeal bill that GOP leaders had to scuttle last month.
“The plan gets better and better and better, and it has gotten really, really good,” he said.
But officials close to the negotiations tell Noam Levey that Republican leaders still do not have the 216 votes needed to pass the bill in the House. Some steps the administration has taken to placate conservatives in the House are likely to drive away moderates.
And next week, Congress has more urgent matters to attend to: Lawmakers face an April 30 deadline to pass an appropriations bill or else many parts of the government will shut down.
Congressional leaders in both parties have been making progress on a deal to avoid a shutdown, but the administration could complicate things by insisting that the bill include money to start Trump’s proposed wall on the southern border.
The fate of the health reform bill has a major impact on another Trump priority — tax reform. The collapse of the healthcare plan has slowed down what was already going to be a difficult task of coming up with a tax reform plan acceptable to all the GOP factions.
This week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin conceded that his hope of getting a tax overhaul done by August was probably unrealistic. For now, the administration has no plan, and Republicans in the House and Senate disagree deeply over what to do.
Once the tax reform debate gets fully underway — assuming that happens — Trump will face another problem, Noah Bierman reported: He doesn’t like to talk about tradeoffs, and tax reform involves almost nothing else.
There’s also the issue of Trump’s own taxes, which he has continued to refuse to release. Democrats plan to make that an issue in any tax debate, arguing that Congress shouldn’t pass a tax deal that might be a windfall for the president and his family without at least knowing what’s at stake for him. During the current congressional recess, a number of Republican lawmakers also have been saying Trump should release his taxes.
IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
In his campaign, Trump promised that on Day 1 he would “rip up” the nuclear deal the Obama administration reached with Iran.
This week, however, the administration certified to Congress that Iran is abiding by the terms of the deal, as Tracy Wilkinson reported. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration would review the deal to determine if it remains in the national interest, but so far, there’s no sign the administration will try to cancel the pact.
The certification is the latest move by the administration to soft-pedal campaign promises of a big shift away from Obama’s foreign policies.
The Trump administration has also not revoked President Obama’s DACA program, which provides a shield against deportation for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. But that doesn’t mean that all DACA recipients are safe.
The latest evidence involves Juan Manuel Montes, a 23-year-old covered by DACA who was detained in Calexico and deported to Mexico in February. Montes has filed suit, alleging his deportation was improper, Cindy Carcamo reported. The circumstances of Montes’ detention are hotly disputed, and immigration officials have already changed their account at least once.
In addition, as Jennie Jarvie reported, 43 people were deported after losing their DACA status in the first two months of Trump’s presidency. The deportees were stripped of their protection because of a criminal conviction or gang activity. More than 740,000 people have protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Most of those who were deported probably lost their DACA status during Obama’s presidency, Department of Homeland Security officials said. The number who were deported, however, is up significantly and likely reflects stepped up immigration enforcement under Trump. The Obama administration deported 365 people whose DACA status was revoked during the roughly four years after the program started.
Meanwhile, as Mike Memoli and Don Lee reported, Trump issued a new executive order that aims to change the rules on the H-1B visa program, which is widely used in the tech industry.
The order, however, does not actually make any changes in the rules. Instead, it sets up a review process that could lead to changes next year.
BOLD PROMISES, LESS ACTION
If that pattern sounds familiar — an executive action that orders a review but doesn’t really change policy — it should. According to a review we did, of 39 executive orders and presidential memorandums that Trump signed through the end of last week, more than half simply ordered studies. Only about a dozen actually changed policy.
A good case in point is the president’s promise, which he’s often repeated, that from now on, all pipelines built in the U.S. will have to use American-made steel. His actual order did no such thing — it directed the Commerce Department to study the issue and come up with a plan.
Today, Trump is signing yet another executive order asking for a policy review. This one will examine the bank regulations imposed under Dodd-Frank, the Obama-era financial reform law.
Trump has similarly stepped up his rhetoric about trade this week, including an attack on Canada’s dairy industry. But his administration so far hasn’t done much that differs from past practices on trade disputes.
A recent poll showed that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has become, if not a household name, at least a recognizable one to millions of Americans — a level of public awareness that most of his predecessors did not receive.
Unfortunately for Spicer, a lot of the notice has been for gaffes and misstatements, some of which clearly stemmed from being required to defend presidential comments that were baseless accusations or other false claims. Michael Finnegan talked to several former press secretaries, who offered some advice to Spicer.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Sarah Wire 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.
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