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For Trump, a focus on nuclear diplomacy provides a welcome change of topic

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(LAT)

A lot has swirled around President Trump the past week: his former lawyer’s bank account, his current lawyer’s indiscretions, the White House’s quiet admission that his much-vaunted infrastructure plan is dead for the year.

But the president has drowned out much of that with high-profile news on foreign policy — most of it involving his nuclear diplomacy with North Korea.

Like nearly all his predecessors since World War II, Trump has discovered that foreign affairs can give a president much more of a boost than the domestic sort. Unlike his predecessors — well, almost everything else is unlike them.

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THE SINGAPORE FLING

Trump’s greatest skill lies in showmanship, and he deployed that with relish in the past week, repeatedly teasing an announcement of the time and place of his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

On Thursday, he finally announced — by tweet, of course — that the two would get together on June 12 in Singapore. The announcement came after a pre-dawn trip to Joint Base Andrews, outside Washington, where he welcomed home Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and three Korean Americans who had been held in prison by the North Koreans.

Trump gleefully demurred later when a reporter asked if he thought he deserved a Nobel Prize.

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“Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it,” he said.

Trump’s evident eagerness for a deal with North Korea has generated unease even within his administration.

At the Pentagon, officials worry about the future of U.S. troops in South Korea, David Cloud wrote. Trump has often talked about reducing U.S. troop commitments overseas, but Pentagon planners consider the roughly 28,000 troops in South Korea a vital part of the U.S. defense network and increasingly important as China strengthens its military.

Part of the concern, as Noah Bierman and Tracy Wilkinson wrote, is Trump’s penchant for declaring victory before the hard work is done. Last spring, for example, after the House passed a healthcare bill, Trump held a Rose Garden ceremony, seemingly oblivious to the fact that House passage was the easy part and the measure was doomed in the Senate.

Now, as Trump celebrates the release of the U.S. prisoners, White House officials are anxiously insisting to reporters that he’s not being played by Kim and that he won’t accept phony concessions from Pyongyang in his haste to declare a win.

RIPPING UP THE IRAN DEAL

Trump’s cheery optimism about negotiations with North Korea mirrors what he accuses the Obama administration of having done in its negotiations with Iran.

Given his repeated campaign denunciations of the Iran deal, Trump’s decision this week to pull the U.S. out of the agreement and impose new economic sanctions on Iran had an inevitability to it that belied the frantic European efforts to restrain him.

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Administration officials appear to be betting that Iran is too economically weak and politically divided to risk a renewed effort to build a nuclear weapon.

The Obama administration hoped that nuclear diplomacy with Iran might, slowly, lead to improved relations and a moderation of Iran’s policies. By contrast, they saw North Korea as a hopeless case that would require long-term containment.

The Trump administration has turned those ideas upside down. Negotiations with Kim might lead to “world peace,” Trump says. By contrast, along with allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel, administration officials openly hope that renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran will help bring about the downfall of not just the current government in Tehran, but the entire Islamic theocracy.

European leaders — and former Obama officials — think Trump’s approach will hasten the likelihood of war in the Mideast and a nuclear arms race there.

HIGHER PRICES AT THE PUMP

Who is right in the long run can’t be known now. But in the short-term, Trump’s renewed economic sanctions on Iran will have an impact at home — risking higher gasoline prices as Iran’s oil leaves the market, Don Lee wrote. U.S. manufacturers such as Boeing will also feel the sting of canceled orders.

That’s part of a pattern in which Trump’s confrontations abroad have increased the risks to continued economic growth at home. The flip side: Administration officials feel the economy has enough strength to allow the U.S. to throw its weight around overseas.

That theory could be tested in U.S. relations with China. A top-level U.S. delegation, including Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer traveled to Beijing for talks that led nowhere this week, as Jessica Meyers wrote from the Chinese capital.

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The lack of progress in the talks raised worries about a trade war, Lee wrote.

THE RUDY AND MICHAEL SHOW

Part of what Trump wanted when he shook up his legal team was a more aggressive defender on television. Rudy Giuliani certainly is on TV a lot; whether his defense helps Trump’s cause is not so clear.

Trump’s longtime — and now maybe former — personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, isn’t on TV except in video clips coming in and out of court. He’s clearly not helping,

Last week, Giuliani disclosed that Trump had reimbursed Cohen for a $130,000 hush money payment to Stormy Daniels, the porn actress who alleged a sexual encounter with Trump. Last Friday, as Bierman wrote, Trump changed his story on the payoff and disputed what Giuliani had said, although he never made clear what it was that he was disputing.

Then, on Sunday, Giuliani declared that Trump wouldn’t “have to” obey a subpoena from Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, and raised the possibility that the president, could exercise his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, as Laura King wrote.

On Tuesday, the lawyer for Daniels, Michael Avenatti, disclosed bank records that showed that the consulting company Cohen had created to funnel the payment to Daniels had received payments of $500,000 from a firm linked to a Russian oligarch.

As Michael Finnegan wrote, Viktor Vekselberg was not the only one paying Essential Consultants LLC. Cohen’s firm also got $1.2 million from Novartis, the big drug company, $600,000 from AT&T and $150,000 from Korean Aerospace Industries.

As Chris Megerian, David Willman and Finnegan wrote, the documents, at minimum, show Cohen cashing in on his access to Trump.

“This is the swamp in its full glory,” Fred Wertheimer, the longtime good-government activist, told them.

The big question is whether it was more than that. Investigators for Mueller have questioned Vekselberg as well as officials from Novartis and AT&T. Those interviews were part of the lead-up to prosecutors getting a warrant to search Cohen’s office, home and a hotel room.

One Trump lawyer, Emmet Flood, isn’t talking. Want to know more about him? Read this profile that Megerian wrote about this veteran of past White House scandals.

SEPARATING FAMILIES AT THE BORDER

As Joe Tanfani and Cindy Carcamo wrote, the administration has begun a new, tougher approach to people caught crossing the border without authorization. Rather than simply busing them back into Mexico, prosecutors will now file charges against all illegal crossers, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions announced.

Moreover, if families cross together, children are likely to be separated from their parents, with the adults sent to detention centers and children held separately.

The move will require a lot more money for prosecutors and detention centers. Ironically, it won’t affect the main group that Trump has railed about recently — the asylum seekers who formed a caravan in recent weeks and traveled from Central America to Tijuana. People who claim asylum aren’t breaking the law when they approach a legal border crossing, so they won’t face prosecution.

As David Savage wrote, their cases involve legal issues on which immigration courts are deeply split. Some immigration judges deny upward of 90% of the asylum claims they hear, others deny 30% or less. Sessions, however, has moved to restrict the application of asylum law.

The administration also announced it is ending temporary status for Hondurans, the latest immigrant group to face the prospect of deportation, Tanfani wrote.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has talked about a legislative solution for the roughly 400,000 immigrants who have long lived legally in the U.S. under temporary status. But the administration has done little to achieve that goal.

In Congress, a group of Republicans has moved to force a House vote on another key immigration issue — the “Dreamers.” As Sarah Wire reported, they’ll need 25 Republicans, and by Friday morning, they had 18. But House leaders were pushing hard for members not to sign.

HEADING OFF AN ENVIRONMENTAL COLLISION?

Auto executives headed to the White House on Friday. As Evan Halper wrote, they were hoping to avoid a collision between the administration and California over fuel economy rules.

The auto companies wanted Trump to give them some relief from tough rules adopted under Obama that would boost fuel economy significantly by 2025. But EPA chief Scott Pruitt has used that issue as an opening for an all-out war with California over emissions rules. That’s a lot more than the auto companies bargained for.

RULING OUT TORTURE

Trump’s nominee to head the CIA, Gina Haspel, pledged in her confirmation hearing that she won’t let the CIA resume abusive interrogations.

But, as Megerian wrote, Haspel repeatedly refused to call the brutal interrogations during the Bush administration immoral. Her effort to straddle the moral line brought a rebuke from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was tortured as a POW in Vietnam. But her pledge not to let the CIA do it again was enough to gain backing from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), which probably will secure her confirmation.

BRINGING TECH TO THE MOUNTAINS?

Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, traveled to Manchin’s state recently. In Beckley, W.Va., he talked about his efforts to persuade the tech industry to spread out from its coastal enclaves and about the need for Democrats to expand economic opportunities to places the tech boom has ignored. Halper’s story on Khanna’s effort to sell his vision in Trump country is well worth a read.

THE DECLINE OF THE CALIFORNIA GOP IN ONE STAT

George Deukmejian’s death at age 89 came, coincidentally, just hours before this year’s candidates for governor clashed in a debate. The juxtaposition highlighted the huge shift in California politics since he left office a generation ago.

Deukmejian was the fourth of five Republicans who governed the state for most of the second half of the 20th century — 40 out of 56 years, with the exceptions being two Democratic governors named Brown, Pat and Jerry. Today, that era of GOP dominance has faded to a distant memory, along with the party.

No Republican has won a statewide office in California in more than a decade, since 2006. November seems unlikely to break that pattern, with the Republicans unsure if they will even have a candidate for governor on this fall’s ballot.

As John Myers reported, the state’s latest voter registration data, released Thursday, showed Republican ranks continuing to dwindle. The party currently stands just barely ahead of nonparty voters in the registration tally. Just under 45% of the state’s voters registered as Democrats, with 25.3% Republicans and 25.1% nonparty, the latest figures show. California actually has fewer registered Republicans now than it did when Deukmejian left office, despite having almost 6 million more voters.

THE PRIMARY SCRAMBLE

Despite their dominance statewide, Democrats worry that the state’s top-two primary could leave them shut out of some winnable congressional races. That’s because too many Democrats on the ballot could split the party’s vote. Christine Mai-Duc reports on the party’s latest strategy to prevent a primary shutout.

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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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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