Just 15 months ago, President Trump memorably declared healthcare a knottier issue than he had realized, saying: "Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.”
Now, he can add nuclear diplomacy to that list.
In withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear agreement and planning a summit with Kim Jong Un, Trump wanted to show that he could negotiate better deals than his predecessors. Friday, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said diplomats were still working to try to put the Singapore summit back on track. For now, however, Trump is left with two potential nuclear crises and a long list of wounded allies.
NO TO A SUMMIT
A couple of weeks ago Trump was musing publicly about whether he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize: “Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it,” he said. Even then, however, his aides worried the summit plans were falling apart.
As Eli Stokols and Matt Stiles reported, the doubts mounted quickly after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his second trip to Pyongyang to meet with Kim. He returned with three Americans who had been held in Korean prisons, but with no indication that Kim was serious about eliminating his nuclear stockpile — Trump’s central demand.
In the two weeks since that meeting, North Korea’s statements grew more bellicose, with venom directed especially at John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national security advisor.
A final blow came when the North Koreans refused to allow Americans to observe what Pyongyang said was the demolition of its nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.
All along, however, as Stokols and Noah Bierman reported, the summit plans were caught between Trump’s eager ambitions for a diplomatic victory that he felt would secure his reelection and the skepticism of his advisors, who doubted that Kim would ever agree to give up a nuclear stockpile that he, his father and his grandfather spent more than half a century acquiring.
As Barbara Demick and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, most outside analysts saw the summit as a train wreck waiting to happen. Trump had little choice but to pull out of a meeting he had too hastily agreed to and for which he had little preparation, they said.
Yet, the sudden cancellation caught U.S. allies by surprise. The move particularly embarrassed South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had served as the matchmaker bringing the two sides together.
Early this week, Moon flew hurriedly to Washington to meet with Trump, trying to keep the summit on track. The meetings Tuesday ended equivocally, but the White House gave the South Koreans no advance word before Trump released his letter scrubbing the meeting. Moon had just returned to Seoul when the letter became public, and the South Koreans made little effort to hide their dismay.
With the summit off the calendar, Trump has surrendered the initiative to Kim, as Washington awaits North Korea’s reaction.
In the past, Pyongyang has responded to the collapse of diplomatic efforts by trying to create a new crisis. This time, however, some analysts believe the North may have already achieved much of what it wants — international recognition, a weakening of U.S. alliances and an erosion of sanctions — and may be content to just wait Trump out.
THE OTHER NUCLEAR STANDOFF
Trump’s enthusiasm for a deal with North Korea stood in sharp contrast to his denunciation of the deal President Obama struck with Iran to constrain that country’s nuclear program.
This week, Pompeo made Iran the topic of his first major speech, a toughly worded attack on Tehran in which he called for a global anti-Iran coalition. As Wilkinson reported, however, Pompeo offered few suggestions about how the U.S. would achieve its goals, beyond vowing an intense campaign of economic sanctions.
MEANTIME, THE TRADE WAR
As Stokols and Bierman reported, Trump and many of his advisors blame China for souring North Korea’s attitude toward a summit meeting. In their eyes, the nuclear dispute is bound up with the fight between Washington and Beijing over trade.
On that front, too, Trump has sent mixed signals.
Late last week, as Don Lee reported, Chinese officials came to Washington and outlined a plan to increase Chinese imports of U.S. goods by some $200 billion a year.
Many economists reacted with deep skepticism, doubting that U.S. factories, already operating near capacity, could produce that much more for export.
Some of Trump’s hard-line aides, like Peter Navarro, his trade advisor, felt the offer to increase imports was mostly an effort by China to divert attention from the more important issue of Beijing’s efforts to force American companies to turn over important technology.
Others, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, viewed the Chinese offer more favorably. On Sunday, as Lee and Chris Megerian reported, Mnuchin announced that the administration was “putting the trade war on hold.”
Now, however, with the summit off the agenda, the trade war may be back on, Lee reports.
CALIFORNIA HAS MOVED LEFT, SO HAS ITS SENIOR SENATOR
Dianne Feinstein made support of the death penalty a centerpiece of her political identity when she first moved into statewide politics more than a generation ago.
But California has grown far more liberal since then, and, as Sarah Wire reported, Feinstein has moved left on a variety of issues as she seeks reelection. The most notable is the death penalty. Running for a fifth term, she now says capital punishment is unfair and ineffective.
Perhaps the most instructive aspect of Wire’s story: Feinstein’s aides say the senator changed her mind about the death penalty several years ago, but that until Wire asked, no reporter had inquired. Her last reelection campaign six years ago was such a once-sided affair that Feinstein barely had to campaign.
This time around, Feinstein remains a prohibitive favorite for reelection, the latest USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll shows.
As John Myers reported, her main opponent, Kevin de León, just hopes to finish second in the June primary. That would put him into the November general election against the incumbent, allowing him a second chance in case lightning strikes in the ensuing months.
Meantime, the new USC/L.A. Times poll also has a message to California Democrats hoping to run for president, as Mark Barabak wrote: Don't quit that day job!
Sen. Kamala Harris got relatively good news from the survey: By 42%-20%, voters in the poll said they were fine with the idea of her seeking the Democratic nomination. But the poll also showed that a quarter of those surveyed said they had never heard of Harris, who has held statewide office since 2010.
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has even lower name recognition — about 30% hadn’t heard of him, including nearly half of those in the Bay Area. The idea of his running for the Democatic nomination got less support in the poll — about one-third supported the idea, 21% disapproved and the rest had no opinion.
TRUMP ATTACKS MUELLER, STABILIZES HIS POLITICAL BASE
Since swapping out his legal team earlier this spring, Trump has been leading the attack against the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election that’s being conducted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
As Bierman and Chris Megerian wrote, those attacks have helped solidify Trump’s support among his core voters. As a result, Trump’s job approval, while still low by historical standards, has risen significantly since December.
This week, Trump amped up the attacks, saying he would demand that the Justice Department investigate the Russia probe. He’s focused on an early chapter in the investigation — long before Mueller arrived on the scene — in which FBI officials asked an American professor who had been an informant for the bureau to question a couple of Trump campaign aides about their possible Russia ties.
Trump has denounced that as “spying” on his campaign. Democrats say they have seen no sign of wrongdoing.
PROSPECTS FOR THE MIDTERMS
Trump’s improved standing among Republican voters probably is good news for the party going into the midterm elections. Midterms tend to be a referendum on the party in the White House, and the better Trump does, the better his party’s candidates likely will fare.
That being said, Democrats still have a decent chance of winning control of the House and an outside shot at the Senate.
Democrats have disagreed over what sort of candidates will do best in the current environment: Run left in the hope of motivating core Democratic voters or move to the center to attract independents and moderate Republicans alienated by Trump?
As Barabak wrote, that debate played out in a primary in a suburban district outside of Houston where Democrats hope to win a seat long held by Republicans. In the end, Lizzie Fletcher, a lawyer with a Houston firm, and the more moderate candidate, soundly beat her opponent, Laura Moser.
In Georgia, by contrast, Stacey Abrams, the candidate whose strategy depends on motivating core Democrats, easily won her primary. She will seek to become the first black woman ever elected a governor in the U.S.
As Jennie Jarvie wrote, that will be a tough challenge in Georgia. But Abrams and her strategists note that the state has hundreds of thousands of African American residents who have never been registered or organized to vote. They aim to change that.
REPUBLICANS SETTLE FOR HALF A LOAF ON BANK RULES
Congress gave final approval to a bill that would ease regulations on banks. But as Jim Puzzanghera reported, the measure fell short of the overhaul of the Dodd-Frank banking reform that the GOP wanted.
As with Obamacare, the GOP has had to settle for weakening a major Obama-era program, not repealing it.
Republicans remain even more divided on immigration. GOP infighting scuttled a major farm bill, and party moderates are close to having enough support to force a House debate on DACA legislation. The moderates have given House leaders until June 7 to come up with a compromise proposal.
Congress has made progress on another issue, however. Senate leaders reached a bipartisan deal to reform how Capitol Hill handles sexual harassment cases, Wire reported.
THE REST OF THE WEEK’S NEWS
A federal judge in New York ruled that Trump blocking his critics on Twitter violates the 1st Amendment. As David Pierson wrote, the ruling, which the government likely will appeal, could apply broadly to social media accounts maintained by other public officials.
The administration moved to put new restrictions on abortion services, Noam Levey reported.
The IRS will try to block plans in California and other states that sought to get around new limits on the deductibility of state taxes, Puzzanghera reported.
And the Supreme Court handed corporations a major victory over their workers, ruling that companies can require workers to individually arbitrate disputes over wages. As David Savage wrote, the ruling was the latest example of the high court using a once-obscure 1925 law to restrict workers' rights.
ANOTHER FIGHT AT THE EPA
The administration keeps trying to find someone to run the EPA’s regional office that handles environmental matters in California and adjacent states. The latest candidate comes wth a twist — he wants approval not to work in the agency’s main office in San Francisco, as Evan Halper and Tony Barboza reported. It’s unclear if Mike Stoker’s desire to work from a small office in Los Angeles will scuttle his nomination.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Tuesday after the holiday 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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