Late last week, Donald Trump did something wholly bizarre.
That, paradoxically, wasn’t all that strange. After all, the US president does things that are wholly bizarre all the time.
But what he did on Friday was, by most accounts, without precedent.
Just hours ahead of Robert Mueller delivering his final report on Russian election interference to William Barr, Trump tweeted out his intention to undo new North Korea sanctions which had been imposed just a day earlier.
We documented this as it happened. Long story short, the US on Thursday targeted a pair of China-based shipping companies accused of assisting North Korea in an ongoing effort to evade sanctions. Treasury also updated the shipping advisory, adding multiple vessels thought to have exported North Korean coal or participated in ship-to-ship transfers.
Those were the first North Korea-related sanctions Treasury has imposed since late last year.
“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”, Trump tweeted on Friday, adding that “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
At first, everyone assumed Trump had misspoke. But lacking clarification, the media pounced, and although the story quickly took a backseat to the Mueller melee, the administration was compelled to explain the unexplainable.
Specifically, the White House tried to say that Trump was referring to a set of not-yet-announced sanctions that nobody knows anything about rather than the sanctions the administration announced on Thursday. Here’s The Washington Post to explain:
The source of the confusion was Trump’s reference to “today.” No sanctions had been announced Friday, leading analysts to assume the president was referring to a round of sanctions imposed Thursday by the Treasury Department.
In fact, Trump was referring to a future round of previously unknown sanctions scheduled for the coming days, said administration officials familiar with the matter. The officials declined to specify what those sanctions would entail.
The move to forestall future sanctions represents an attempt by the president to salvage his nuclear negotiations with North Korea in the face of efforts by national security adviser John Bolton and others to increase punitive economic measures against the regime of Kim Jong Un.
The confusion created by policy differences inside the administration was compounded by the president’s imprecise tweet.
Needless to say, that excuse – i.e., that Trump was referring to a future round of sanctions as opposed to going rogue on Twitter – was met with skepticism and incredulity.
For his part, Marco Rubio wasn’t amused. Here’s what he told Chuck Todd on Sunday:
Well, I’ve never seen that before from this or any administration, so something happened here. Those things have to usually be approved. In fact, I know that they are. They go through a long inter-agency process, signed off on by the president. So, something happened between the time it was announced and the time that the president put out that statement. I don’t know the answer, to be honest. I don’t know why he would do that or why it happened the way it did. It’s unusual. It’s never happened before.
Obviously, you can’t have the US government saying one thing about new sanctions only to have the president tweeting out something entirely different the next day, because that creates a scenario wherein the international community can’t trust what Treasury says without confirmation from Trump’s Twitter account.
Well, guess what? The administration was lying. Trump did in fact try to undo the penalties imposed on North Korea last Thursday.
“President Donald Trump last week intended to reverse sanctions imposed on two Chinese shipping companies accused of violating North Korea trade prohibitions — until officials in his administration persuaded him to back off and then devised a misleading explanation of his vague tweet announcing the move”, Bloomberg reports, adding that contrary to the subsequent coverup effort, “there were no additional North Korea sanctions in the works at the time.”
That’s according to four people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity “in order to candidly describe last week’s events and the administration’s attempt to provide a cover story for the president.”
Needless to say, this raises further questions about the relative wisdom of Trump’s penchant for making policy via tweet without consulting anyone.
More importantly, it suggests that the president’s desire to stay in Kim’s good graces is undercutting the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and if you really wanted to, you could extrapolate from that and assert that foreign policy is now effectively beholden to whatever Trump believes the optics are for him personally vis-a-vis a given situation.
Perhaps the most disconcerting (if highly amusing) aspect of this entire boondoggle, though, is that the confusion created by Trump’s description of last Thursday’s sanctions as being announced on Friday suggests that either Trump wasn’t sure when the announcement was made or else the president didn’t know what day it was.