Trump juggles crises in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela

Trump juggles crises in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP sues California over Newsom's vote-by-mail order MORE is facing a key stretch on foreign policy with escalating situations challenging his leadership in North Korea, Venezuela, China and Iran all in the span of a few days.

Trump has separately juggled disputes with each country over the last several months as the administration has been engaged in trade talks with China, negotiated with North Korea about denuclearization, and pressured Venezuelan and Iranian leadership with economic sanctions.


But the stakes in each case have ramped up in recent days. The convergence of events leaves Trump and his top advisers with a series of decisions to make that could draw in the U.S. military, reshape the economy or further strain diplomatic ties.

“There are a lot of plates that we’re spinning in the department,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanHouse Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis Boeing pleads for bailout under weight of coronavirus, 737 fallout Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January MORE told reporters on Tuesday. “I think the events of the weekend with North Korea demonstrates that the world is a very dynamic place. There’s no change to our plans for diplomacy, but our resources, our troops, our posture remains the same.”

In Venezuela and Iran, Trump is confronted with a test of restraint. The administration has thus far resorted to sanctions to spur change in each country, but the possibility of military action looms.

Trump and his advisers have repeatedly said “all options are on the table” with regard to Venezuela, where a popular uprising led last week by opposition leader Juan Guaidó failed to oust embattled President Nicolás Maduro. The country has faced a worsening humanitarian and economic crisis under Maduro's rule.

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, said the Trump administration is right to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate leader but that it has failed so far to adequately mobilize a global coalition against Maduro.

“They’re turning it into a U.S.-Venezuela issue, which is totally unnecessary and counterproductive,” said Manning, who worked in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

The administration has hammered Maduro with sanctions and led dozens of nations in backing Guaidó as the country's legitimate leader months ago. But that strategy has yet to produce a peaceful transfer of power — the administration's stated goal.

Asked last week about possible “red lines” in Venezuela, Trump signaled a reluctance to engage the military.

“There’s always a tipping point, but certainly I’d rather not do that,” Trump told Fox News.

Trump appears to be walking a similarly fine line in the Persian Gulf.

The White House on Sunday issued a statement from national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonHave the courage to recognize Taiwan McConnell says Obama administration 'did leave behind' pandemic plan Trump company lawyer warned Michael Cohen not to write 'tell-all' book: report MORE announcing the U.S. would send a carrier strike group toward Iran, citing “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”

“The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces,” Bolton said.

The fact that Bolton’s name was attached to the statement raised some eyebrows in the foreign policy community, given his support for regime change prior to his time working for Trump. Bolton has said he stands by his past comments, but that his job is to advise the president in his current capacity rather than make decisions.

Top administration officials have offered few specifics on the cause of the deployment other than to point to a “credible threat” from Iran.

Iran is expected to announce Wednesday that it is withdrawing from parts of an Obama-era nuclear deal on the anniversary of Trump's announcement that the U.S. was pulling out of the pact.

“It's going to be relatively minor, but it will be controversial, and of course the Trump administration is going to jump up and down as if they had no responsibility for this,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Manning argued that China and North Korea should be of greater concern to the Trump administration.

“You have to decide what your priorities are,” he said. “What is the top interest of the U.S.? I would say China and North Korea are higher up on the chain, and I still don’t understand our policy in Iran.”

The president's self-proclaimed reputation as a dealmaker is being put to the test in the wake of recent developments in the two Asian countries.

The president has imposed tariffs on Chinese imports for months, despite concerns from lawmakers within his own party that the policy is hurting American farmers and workers. Trump has insisted tariffs will ultimately bring China to the table to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal.

Just a few weeks after saying a deal was within reach, the president scrambled the situation on Sunday by threatening to raise tariffs on Beijing.

Trump's rigid stance has earned plaudits from some in both parties, including Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' Senate Democrats call on Trump administration to let Planned Parenthood centers keep PPP loans States, companies set up their own COVID-19 legal shields MORE (D-N.Y.).

But the move threatened to undo positive economic news, as the stock market slumped amid fears of a breakdown in negotiations.

The outlier for now appears to be Trump’s approach to North Korea, where he has practiced patience and flattery as he seeks a deal with leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnKim Jong Un seeks to continue bolstering North Korea's nuclear capabilities, state media says Overnight Defense: State Dept. watchdog was investigating emergency Saudi arms sales before ouster | Pompeo says he requested watchdog be fired for 'undermining' department | Pensacola naval base shooter had 'significant ties' to al Qaeda, Barr says Trump says investigation into Pompeo shows 'screwed up' priorities MORE on denuclearization.

Late Friday, the administration said it was monitoring a new report that North Korea had test-launched projectiles for the first time since 2017.

The development threw into question Trump’s efforts to personally broker a deal with Kim on denuclearization. A February summit between the two leaders ended abruptly and without concrete next steps.

Trump has remained committed to his efforts in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, despite skeptics’ insistence that Kim is not to be trusted and will not abandon his nuclear arsenal. 

“I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it,” Trump tweeted the day after the launch was reported. “He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!” 

Trump on Tuesday spoke with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The two discussed “how to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of [North Korea],” according to the White House.

Manning said he'd like to see Trump give more latitude to diplomats on North Korea, casting doubt on the president's ability to get results from one-on-one negotiations.

“I think we’ve seen the limits of personal diplomacy and summits,” Manning said. “I’m afraid that Trump seems to think diplomacy is the same as making a real estate deal. The big guys draw out an agreement, and the munchkins work out the details. It doesn’t work that way.”