By Noah Bierman / Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump overruled his administration’s new round of sanctions aimed at forcing North Korea to end its nuclear program, surprising his staff and confusing the public with a tweet Friday afternoon.
“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 wrote soon after arriving for the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Fla. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
The president appeared to be referring to a pair of sanctions that his Treasury secretary announced Thursday against two Chinese shipping companies accused of helping North Korea evade sanctions. Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin issued a strong statement in Thursday’s announcement, taking a hard line against North Korea that was greatly at odds with Trump’s retreat and his spokeswoman’s subsequent explanation.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dashed off a statement that did little to explain what was behind Trump’s tweet. She reaffirmed Trump’s personal relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with whom he has had two summits that failed to yield a deal on nuclear disarmament.
“President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” she said.
Mnuchin, in his statement a day earlier, said, “The United States and our like-minded partners remain committed to achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and believe that the full implementation of North Korea-related U.N. Security Council resolutions is crucial to a successful outcome.”
He added, “Treasury will continue to enforce our sanctions, and we are making it explicitly clear that shipping companies employing deceptive tactics to mask illicit trade with North Korea expose themselves to great risk.”
National security adviser John Bolton had also tried to underscore the tough stance against North Korea signified by Thursday’s sanctions move, tweeting after they were announced that they were “important actions.”
“The maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices,” he wrote. “Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.”
Trump often surprises his staff with his tweets, but the stakes get much higher when his bursts involve the U.S. relationship with North Korea, an outlaw nuclear nation that has been among the United States’ foremost adversaries.
Trump’s advisers could not immediately explain why he sent the tweet, which sanctions he was referring to and why he would allow sanctions to be announced if he planned on revoking them hours later. It was unclear whether Trump was blindsided by the sanctions, or whether he’d been persuaded by someone to oppose them after they had been issued.
It all made for a muddled message, not just to North Korea but also to allies, whose cooperation in upholding economic sanctions is critical, and the disarray once again suggested an administration at odds with its chief executive.
“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,” tweeted Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies.