Inside the White House, tensions had been building for months: President Trump felt hemmed in by aides trying to manage him, his confidantes said; he was angry and frustrated; sooner or later, something would blow.
Over the past week, the explosions happened in fast and startling succession — the departure of White House economic advisor Gary Cohn, taxes on imported steel and aluminum with no certainty about which nations they apply to, and, finally, the unprecedented announcement of a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea.
The moves had in common risk, unpredictability, a lack of careful preparation. In short, Trump is doing it his way.
DONALD AND ‘ROCKET MAN’
There’s no question that Trump considers the North Korean invitation to a summit meeting a personal triumph.
Thursday afternoon, as Brian Bennett and Tracy Wilkinson reported, the president personally popped into the White House briefing room to tell reporters that a “major announcement” would be coming from the South Koreans. About an hour before the South Korean national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, made that announcement, ABC’s Jonathan Karl saw Trump briefly and asked him if the news would be about negotiations.
“It’s almost beyond that,” Trump told him. “Hopefully, you will give me credit.”
Credit or blame, whichever history assigns, Trump surely will get: Virtually no one else in his administration even knew the announcement was coming, let alone was prepared for it.
Just a few hours earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was traveling in Africa, had told reporters, “we are a long way from negotiations” with the North Koreans.
At the State Department and the White House’s National Security Council, the ranks of Korea experts have thinned with retirements and other departures. Trump’s first choice as ambassador to Seoul, Victor Cha, a respected Korea expert, was derailed in late January after he disagreed with a policy that, at the time, appeared to be drifting toward a possible preemptive U.S. attack on North Korean nuclear sites.
By contrast, the North Koreans appear, at least from the outside, to have followed a carefully plotted course in which they successfully tested nuclear warheads and the missiles that could deliver them and now will receive a one-on-one meeting with a U.S. president — a goal the Kim dynasty has pursued for decades.
Nearly two decades ago, then-President Clinton and his aides pondered whether to meet with Kim Jong-Il, the father of the current North Korean leader. By then, they had negotiated with the North for more than five years, carefully building the foundations of a nuclear agreement.
Clinton sent his secretary of State, Madeleine K. Albright, to Pyongyang. She was prepared to offer a summit meeting in exchange for Kim agreeing in advance to a deal on his missiles. Kim refused, saying he would negotiate a deal only directly with the president. The summit never happened.
Now, Trump will try the process in reverse — a summit first, with less than three months to prepare. He hopes he can have a breakthrough where others have failed; skeptics say he’s being played by the North Koreans, who have given up nothing of value and are getting a summit meeting in return.
TARIFFS? MAYBE, BUT ON WHOM?
The same South Korean envoys who told Trump about Kim’s desire to meet also carried a request: Please exempt Korean steel exports from your newly announced tariffs.
Given South Korea’s key role in brokering the nuclear negotiations, there’s a good chance Trump will agree.
As Don Lee explained, the tariff order that Trump announced on Thursday “looks less like an effort to preserve national security and more like an attempt to create a giant bargaining chip that the president can play around the world.”
In theory, Trump plans to slap a tax of 25% on imported steel and 10% on imported aluminum, moves that he said would bring back jobs to the U.S. steel industry.
In practice, he announced that, at least for now, he would exempt imports from Canada, the largest exporter of steel to the U.S., and Mexico, the fourth largest. South Korea is No. 3 on the list. Together, those three countries accounted for 38% of U.S. steel imports in 2016, according to the government’s International Trade Administration.
If South Korea wins an exemption, can Japan, another key ally in the North Korea negotiations, be left out? They’re No. 6 on the list. (Brazil and Turkey are the other two sources in the top five).
China, which Trump often talks about as his chief target, is No. 11, and its direct exports to the U.S. have dropped sharply to just about 3% of U.S. imports. Steel-industry analysts say, however, that Chinese overproduction of metals accounts for much of the global surplus that has driven down prices.
“We’re going to be very flexible,” Trump said — a promise that will do little to reassure companies that rely on steel or aluminum to build cars, planes and a host of other products and who want to know what prices they will face.
THE COMMON FACTOR — HIS WAY
What tariffs and the North Korea announcement have in common, in addition to an overlapping set of countries involved, is Trump’s determination to do things his way, putting himself at the center of the negotiations, brushing aside the advice of his own experts and making enormous decisions on the fly.
Until a few hours before the tariff announcement, White House officials remained uncertain about what Trump would say — or even whether a decision would come at all on Thursday. As Christi Parsons wrote, the final word came only when Trump, himself, sent out a tweet that morning saying that he would hold an event in the afternoon.
As Lee noted, until mid-week, White House officials had been saying that specific carve-outs for individual countries were not planned because they would be too difficult to implement.
Trump had justified the tariffs on national security grounds, but undermined that argument on Monday when he suggested he would use them as leverage in the NAFTA negotiations with Canada and Mexico. That statement could weaken the administration’s legal case if the tariffs are challenged either in court or before the World Trade Organization.
Many of the administration’s top economic advisors — as well as the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill — opposed having tariffs, at all, seeing them as simply a tax increase that ultimately hurts business and consumers.
Cohn and his allies had held tariffs off for months, but Trump finally insisted on getting the tariffs he has long asked for. That led to Cohn’s resignation earlier this week.
As Parsons explained, the rapidly changing, improvisational nature of policy making on the tariff issue closely resembled what Trump has done on immigration, guns and other issues in recent weeks.
“What sets Trump’s White House apart,” she wrote, “is how much seems to happen on the fly, driven by a president who calls the shots with proud disregard for policy ramifications and process.”
The same sort of tension shows up in foreign policy where, Bennett wrote, the Pentagon and State Department have been slow-walking Trump policies that officials oppose. That has often left National Security advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster stuck in the middle.
WAR OVER IMMIGRATION
While Trump veers from one issue to the next, some of his appointees have held to a steady — and sometimes quite radical — course.
As Joe Tanfani wrote, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, who has frequently drawn Trump’s scorn, may have done more than any other appointee to push the conservative agenda that the president at least publicly espouses.
The most recent example came this week when Sessions flew to Sacramento to announce that the Justice Department would sue California to block three state laws that Sessions said were designed to impede enforcement of federal immigration laws.
As Evan Halper wrote, the suit drove tensions between the administration and the nation’s biggest state to a new high point.
Gov. Jerry Brown and other state leaders accused Sessions of going to war against California, as Jazmine Ulloa and Liam Dillon wrote.
Beyond the politics, the legal issues differ with each of the three laws under challenge, as Maura Dolan explained. Many legal experts say the state may have its strongest case on the law that Sessions seems most upset by — the state policy of not telling federal officials when immigrants being sought for deportation are released from custody after arrests for non-violent crimes.
AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Sessions’ closest competitor in carrying out a conservative agenda is Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA chief says the plan imposes too many burdensome regulations. He’s been flying around the country meeting with officials of regulated industries, mostly in private, with little opportunity for the public to weigh on, Halper reported.
A SPEEDY TRIAL FOR MANAFORT
The federal court in Alexandria, Va., is famed among lawyers for the speed at which judges schedule trials. The “rocket docket,” lawyers call it.
Former Trump campaign aide Paul Manafort got his first close-up experience of what that means when he was arraigned this week on charges brought by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
As Chris Megerian wrote, Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, told U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III that his “rosy glasses” hope was for a trial date in November.
“You need to go back to the optometrist,” the judge replied, and set a trial date for July 10.
Manafort faces a separate trial in September on other charges brought by Mueller in federal court in Washington, D.C. The special counsel offered to consolidate the two cases in Washington, but Manafort declined, apparently hoping for a more sympathetic jury in Virginia.
Meantime, Manafort’s fate has caused a sudden, sharp increase in the number of Washington lobbyists who have decided to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Until recently, many ignored the law, Megerian reported.
NOT SO SPEEDY FOR ‘DREAMERS’
Amid mutual finger pointing, both sides will wait to see who emerges stronger from this fall’s midterm elections.
BUT QUICK WORK FOR BANKS
By contrast to the immigration issue, a bill to reduce regulations on all but the largest banks is moving swiftly through Congress.
As Jim Puzzanghera wrote, the measure has divided Democrats, with liberals opposed, but 17 members of the Senate Democratic caucus voting to move it forward.
Liberal members of Congress have denounced the bill, calling it a sellout to the financial industry. Moderates say it’s a reasonable, bipartisan compromise that will spur economic growth while still keeping key regulations in place.
Whichever view is correct, the bill is likely to be one of the few major pieces of legislation that Congress will pass this year.
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.
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