Yesterday afternoon, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton touted new economic sanctions that United States was imposing on North Korea. Bolton met with reporters at the White House complex to walk journalists through the details of the policy, and soon after, he published a tweet describing the Trump administration’s sanctions as “important actions.”Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stressed their significance, too.
One day later, Donald Trump rejected his own administration’s policy.
President Trump undercut his own Treasury Department on Friday by announcing that he was rolling back North Korea sanctions that it imposed just a day ago.
The move, announced on Twitter, was a remarkable display of dissension within the Trump administration and showed how actively the White House is intervening in policies that are traditionally handled by career officials in the Treasury and State Departments. Mr. Trump appeared to confuse the day that the North Korea sanctions were announced, saying that it occurred on Friday rather than on Thursday.
Specifically, the American president declared by way of Twitter, “It was announced today by the U.S. Treasury that additional large scale Sanctions would be added to those already existing Sanctions on North Korea. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
All of this comes the same week as Trump reportedly decided to take personal control of negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, sidelining his own top diplomats working on the issue.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed to reporters that the tweet was not a mistake. “President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” she said.
In the not-too-distant past, accusing an American politician of “liking” a ruthless communist dictator would’ve been seen as an ugly insult. In the Trump era, it’s the official White House response to defend the American president’s bizarre behavior.
As a substantive matter, it’s breathtaking to see Trump offer a series of concessions to the North Korean dictatorship in exchange for nothing.
But under the circumstances, that’s only part of what makes today’s developments so extraordinary. We’ve reached the point at which there appears to be escalating tensions, not between the American president and a nuclear-armed rogue state, but rather, between the American president and his own team.
Indeed, when the top voice on U.S. national security touts the importance of sanctions on Thursday afternoon, only to have his boss casually dismiss them with a tweet on Friday afternoon, it’s emblematic of an administration that has no real foreign policy.
In its place, we see a confused amateur who makes bold decisions based on whims, conservative media, and love letters he exchanges with his authoritarian pals.
I can appreciate why this line of argument can be tedious, but take moment today to reflect on how the political world – and congressional Republicans in particular – would react if Barack Obama, without warning or explanation, decided to do a favor for a communist dictatorship in defiance of his own national security team.
It’s likely the blowback would be overpowering.
And yet, here we are, watching these exact circumstances play out. As I write, Trump administration officials seem to have no idea why the president published this tweet or what they should even do about it. Initially, officials weren’t even sure what the president was talking about.
This bears no resemblance to sensible policymaking in a global superpower. It’s a bizarre change in direction, reached in an equally bizarre way.
The competition is admittedly fierce, but this is one of the single strangest foreign policy decisions Trump has made in quite a while.