After Trump’s Threat to Iran, White House Convenes a Policy Meeting

High-level gathering is just the third called by Bolton, a key adviser, since assuming post

Four days after President Trump’s stern warning via Twitter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, national security adviser John Bolton is scheduled to hold a meeting Thursday of Pentagon and other top officials on the administration’s emerging strategy on Iran.

The meeting, which follows Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord and reimpose tough economic sanctions on Tehran, comes as key elements of the administration’s Iran policy remain unclear.

Among them: what the U.S. might give in return for a new agreement with Tehran, and whether Washington is prepared to use military force along with economic pressure to roll back Iran’s assertive posture in the Middle East.

The discussions are to take place among members of the administration’s Principals Committee, a Cabinet-level panel on national security issues that Mr. Bolton chairs and whose members include Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among other senior officials.

.. The Pentagon, however, isn’t eager to get into a war with Iran at a time when its strategy emphasizes building up capabilities to deter Russia and China, and the outcome of talks with North Korea is still uncertain.

.. To isolate Tehran economically and politically, the administration also threatened sanctions on nations that don’t end imports of oil from Iran by Nov. 4.

.. Mr. Trump said that he was “ready to make a real deal” with Iran. But some former officials believe the goal of others in the administration is to weaken and perhaps even destabilize the Iranian regime.

“What we see from Trump himself is the notion that he can negotiate a bigger and better deal by using pressure to bring the Iranians back to the table with more American leverage,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official who is at the Brookings Institution. “That view isn’t shared by others in the administration like the national security adviser and secretary of state who see sanctions as an end in itself.”

.. Before the Helsinki summit, Mr. Bolton voiced hope that Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin might work together to scale back Iran’s role in Syria. But U.S. intelligence experts say that Russia may not have the interest or ability to get Iranian forces out of Syria, and no agreement toward this end was announced in Helsinki.

America First or Trump First?

I was seeing a U.S. president put Russia first, not America first.

.. What’s the matter with you? I don’t know the definitive answer to that question, but I know that it will be an increasing problem as we enter Phase 3 of the Trump presidency.

.. Phase 1 saw Trump unhinged but bound — bound by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Economic Adviser Gary Cohn. In Phase 1 Trump said and did plenty of crazy stuff, but these key aides limited the damage.

.. Phase 2 has seen Trump unhinged and unboundTrump has neutered Kelly, distanced himself from Mattis and sacked Tillerson, McMaster and Cohn. He replaced the last three with men so hungry for their jobs that they were ready to step over the bodies of their predecessors, who, they knew, were pushed out for standing up to Trump on policies and principles

Watching longtime anti-Russia hawks — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — shucking off everything they’ve said over the years and ignoring Trump’s coddling of Putin and his trashing of the F.B.I. in order to grab jobs they’d long coveted is witnessing careerism, sycophancy and cynicism on an industrial scale.

But that sets up Trump Phase 3: unhinged and unbound and unintended.

.. “What America’s allies in Europe learned from Trump’s recent visit is that the United States, at his direction, is acting more like predator than partner. They are concluding that Trump is not looking for a better deal with the European Union. He’s looking to destroy the European Union. And even though they understand the difference between the president and the government he leads, they know the West may never be the same again.”

.. There is one critical defense line left — that formed by F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray, National Intelligence Director Dan Coats, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

.. Wray, Coats and Rosenstein all rose to the occasion. They knew Helsinki was a test of their institutions and themselves, and they passed it with flying colors — always putting America first and not Trump first when it really mattered.

.. Wray also let lawmakers and other critics know that their conspiracy theories about the F.B.I. and Justice Department’s Russia investigations were not intimidating him

.. Rosenstein backed up Coats 100 percent, declaring: “As Director Coats made clear, these [Russian] actions are persistent, they are pervasive, and they are meant to undermine America’s democracy on a daily basis, regardless of whether it is election time or not.”

.. Unfortunately, the secretary of homeland security showed no such spine. Asked if the Russians had intervened to favor Trump, Nielsen said with a straight face: “I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party. I think what we’ve seen on the foreign influence side is they were attempting to intervene and cause chaos on both sides.”

.. That was the sound of a senior national security official putting Trump first, not America first. Nielsen proved to be a shameful coward. I sure hope we do not have a homeland security crisis on her watch.

.. Why do they so freely sacrifice their own reputations and their own integrity to defend a man with no integrity, a man who would sell each and every one of them down the river the second he decided it was in his interest? It is inexplicable to me.

At least Stormy Daniels got paid.

 

In private, Trump vents frustration over lack of progress on North Korea

Trump triumphantly declared that North Korea no longer posed a nuclear threat and that one of the world’s most intractable geopolitical crises had been “largely solved.”

But in the days and weeks since then, U.S. negotiators have faced stiff resistance from a North Korean team practiced in the art of delay and obfuscation.

.. Diplomats say the North Koreans have

  • canceled follow-up meetings,
  • demanded more money and
  • failed to maintain basic communications,
  • even as the once-isolated regime’s engagements with China and South Korea flourish.

.. Meanwhile, a missile-engine testing facility that Trump said would be destroyed remains intact, and U.S. intelligence officials say Pyongyang is working to conceal key aspects of its nuclear program.

.. The lack of immediate progress, though predicted by many analysts, has frustrated the president, who has fumed at his aides in private even as he publicly hails the success of the negotiations.

“Discussions are ongoing and they’re going very well,” Trump told reporters Tuesday.

.. Officials say Trump has been captivated by the nuclear talks, asking staffers for daily updates on the status of the negotiations. His frustration with the lack of progress has been coupled with irritation about the media coverage of the joint statement he signed on June 12 in Singapore, a document that contains no timeline or specifics on denuclearization but has reduced tensions between the two countries.

.. Trump has been hit with a strong dose of reality of North Korea’s negotiating style, which is always hard for Americans to ­understand,” said Duyeon Kim

.. Trump’s interest in the issue has put a particularly bright spotlight on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has tried to wring concessions from his counterpart, Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief viewed by the Trump administration as uncompromising and unable to negotiate outside the most explicit directives from Kim Jong Un.

.. A low point from the perspective of U.S. officials came during Pompeo’s third visit to Pyongyang on July 6 when he pressed North Korean officials for details on their plans to return the remains of U.S. soldiers killed during the Korean War

.. when Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang, the North Koreans insisted they were still not ready to commit to specific plans

.. The delay angered U.S. officials, who were under pressure to ­deliver given Trump’s premature ­announcement on June 20 that North Korea had already “sent back” the remains of 200 soldiers.

.. The sentiment worsened when Kim Jong Un chose not to meet with Pompeo during his stay as had been expected. Pompeo later denied that a meeting was planned, a claim contradicted by diplomats who said the secretary initially intended to see the North Korean leader.

..Pompeo scheduled a meeting between the North Koreans and their Pentagon counterparts to discuss the issue at the demilitarized zone on July 12. The North, however, kept U.S. defense officials waiting for three hours before calling to cancel

The North Koreans then asked for a future meeting with a higher-ranking military ­official.

.. “Pyongyang has reverted to its heavy-handed negotiating tactics.”

..  North Korea denounced the United States’ “unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization” after Pompeo’s last visit and described the discussions as “cancerous.”

.. On Wednesday, Trump said he secured a commitment from Russia to “help” with the North Korea issue.

.. on Friday at the United Nations, his ambassador, Nikki Haley, accused Russia of blocking efforts to discipline North Korea’s illegal smuggling.

.. Climbing down from earlier soaring rhetoric, Trump told CBS this week that “I’m in no real rush. I mean whatever it takes, it takes,” he said.

Trump is too vested to walk away right now,”

.. U.S. officials lay some of the blame on Kim Yong Chol, who despite being North Korea’s chief negotiator has consistently stonewalled discussions by saying he is not empowered to talk about an array of pertinent issues.

That dynamic drew the ire of U.S. officials in an early July meeting in Panmunjom when he refused to discuss the opening of a reliable communications channel or even specific goals of Pompeo’s then-upcoming trip to Pyongyang, diplomats briefed on the meetings said.

..  Kim Yong Chol said he was authorized only to receive a letter Trump had written to Kim Jong Un.

.. When U.S. officials tried to raise substantive issues, Kim Yong Chol resisted and kept asking for the letter. Unable to make headway, the Americans eventually handed over the letter and ended the meeting after only an hour.

.. “[Kim] has a reputation for being extremely rude and aggressive,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea scholar at Tufts University

.. Kim Yong Chol’s negotiating tactics so frustrated U.S. officials that several expressed hope that he would be replaced as top negotiator by Ri Yong Ho, the North’s more agreeable minister of foreign affairs.

.. “Ri knows the issues better and can speak perfect English. Kim is a former spy, not a negotiator.”

.. One of Pompeo’s key objectives ahead of the Pyongyang meeting was to improve basic communications with the North

Many of the president’s top security and intelligence officials have long doubted that North Korea would live up to any of its commitments. But given the lack of options outside of the diplomatic realm, some analysts said a tolerant approach still provides the best outlook.

.. “I worry that Trump might lose patience with the length and complexities of negotiations that are common when dealing with North Korea, and walk away and revert back to serious considerations of the military option,” said Duyeon Kim, the Korea scholar. “Getting to a nuclear agreement takes a long time, and implementing it will be even harder.”