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Trump surprises his own aides by reversing North Korea sanctions

POLITICO logo POLITICO 3/22/2019 By Caitlin Oprysko and Andrew Restuccia

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President Donald Trump on Friday declared he would reverse new sanctions on North Korea that his administration rolled out just a day before, deepening concerns that the ostensible leader of the free world is at odds with his own team as he makes American foreign policy in spontaneous 280-character bursts.

The sudden move left the White House groping for an explanation, telling reporters only that Trump “likes” North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

“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. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”

In a follow-up statement explaining the reversal, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, "President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary."

Trump’s announcement surprised many of his senior aides, and even some Treasury Department officials were caught off guard, according to a person familiar with the matter.

It was the latest example of Trump operating on gut instinct with little care for the formal policy process. Past presidents sometimes spent weeks or even months running key policy proposals through a gauntlet of review by federal agencies and senior White House advisers. Trump has largely shunned that process, preferring to query a small group of informal advisers — or sometimes no one at all — before making rapid-fire decisions that reverberate around the world.

Even the administration's allies were baffled by the reversal. Mark Dubowitz, an influential critic of the Iran nuclear deal who is chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, tweeted, "I’ve been working on sanctions policy for 15+ years. Don’t recall ever seeing a president overrule a Treasury announcement AFTER it was announced."

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump "likes Chairman Kim" of North Korea and no longer feels sanctions are necessary, according to a White House statement. © Tuan Mark/Getty Images President Donald Trump "likes Chairman Kim" of North Korea and no longer feels sanctions are necessary, according to a White House statement. Trump appeared to be referring to an announcement on Thursday in which Treasury said it was sanctioning two China-based shipping companies accused of helping North Korea evade existing economic sanctions.

The president's own national security advisor, John Bolton, had called that announcement "important," warning his Twitter followers to "take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion."

Trump's sudden reversal threatens to widen a rift with his own national security advisor — traditionally a president's closest confidant on foreign policy.

Bolton has long been skeptical of diplomacy with North Korea, and has gingerly distanced himself from the president's effusive praise of Kim in the days since last month’s Hanoi summit.

In a March 3 interview on CBS's "Face the Nation," Bolton emphasized that he was describing the president's rosy assessment of those negotiations, rather than his own. "That's what matters, not my view," he said, adding, "I'm the national security advisor. I'm not the national security decision maker."

The president’s policy-setting tweet Friday also encapsulates the way that nothing in his administration is set in stone unless it comes from Trump himself, an unprecedented quirk of the Trump presidency.

And it follows another sudden foreign policy pronouncement by tweet -- Trump's call on Thursday for U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a move that reportedly surprised his own diplomats.

Trump’s North Korea directive comes almost a month after his second summit with Kim, which was cut short when it became clear neither side could come to an agreement on a path toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Trump and the North Koreans offered differing reasons for the breakdown of negotiations, with Trump saying North Korea demanded full sanctions relief for only incremental steps toward denuclearization, and North Korean officials disputing that account.

Though the sanctions announced Thursday were not necessarily new penalties imposed directly on Kim’s regime, they represent the first instance of the Trump administration clamping down on North Korea since last month’s failed diplomatic talks.

The White House declined to further explain Trump’s tweet beyond Sanders’ brief statement. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had said in a statement Thursday that the new actions were aimed at “making it explicitly clear that shipping companies employing deceptive tactics to mask illicit trade with North Korea expose themselves to great risk.”

The Treasury said the sanctions were against Liaoning Danxing International Forwarding Co. Ltd. and Dalian Haibo International Freight Co. Ltd., and it also released an updated list of shipping vessels it said had engaged in ship-to-ship transfers or otherwise participated in illicit maritime trade with North Korea.

Liaoning Danxing, Treasury said, “routinely used deceptive practices” to assist Europe-based North Korean officials buy goods for the country. Meanwhile, Treasury said, Dalian Haibo provided goods and services to a sanctioned subsidiary of North Korea’s state intelligence service.

Blake Hounshell contributed to this report.

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