The last week has seen a classic Trump-vs.-bureaucracy-vs.-media situation. It perfectly illustrates the level of structural and communication dysfunction that prevails in the Washington, D.C. environment in 2019. It illustrates that this is not “Trump’s fault,” unless you interpret every decision by Trump to not to be handcuffed by Washington convention as a cardinal sin on his part. And it illustrates that he can derive benefit from the dysfunction, even as others flail.
The situation involves a new set of sanctions announced by the Treasury Department last Thursday, 21 March. The new measures target two Chinese shipping companies known to be enabling North Korea to import goods in violation of existing sanctions.
The new measures also update a 2018 shipping advisory with a list of ships involved in illicit at-sea transfers of prohibited cargo for North Korea, along with updated information on where the transfers are taking place and where the ships have been known to call before or after they transport such cargo.
The frustration arose on Friday 22 March, when Trump tweeted that he was reversing the Treasury policy announcement.
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. I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 22, 2019
Initially, there was confusion because the Trump tweet referred to an announcement “today,” which seemed to mean an announcement on Friday. But the only new sanctions had been announced the day before, on Thursday.
Subsequent reporting didn’t clear things up much. Sarah Huckabee Sanders injected a diverting soundbite in answer to media questions:
“President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary,” she said.
The situation passed through a brief phase in which the story was that Trump hadn’t canceled the announced measures; he was actually tweeting about a different package of sanctions that was still in deliberation within the administration.
That story ultimately lapsed, however, in favor of an affirmation from multiple unnamed sources (reported by Bloomberg this week) that there was no new package of sanctions being deliberated, and Trump indeed meant to cancel the new measures announced on 21 March.
The whole episode has been upsetting for those who track these things for the public record. It seems clear that it has been upsetting for officials at Treasury who put the 21 March announcement together. And it’s been a field day for finger-pointers, who all seem to be weighing in to run up the score (by field goals, let us say, rather than touchdowns. This issue isn’t really big enough for touchdowns).
The Washington Examiner summarized the situation to date on 27 March and concluded darkly that Trump was weakening sanctions and making the whole thing worse.
The Examiner article had the singular merit, however, of recognizing that the episode has been about China more than about North Korea. This passage is key:
As the Trump administration and Chinese counterparts try to hammer out a trade deal to end tariffs that are hurting economies on both sides of the Pacific, it would make sense if Trump viewed these sanctions targeting Chinese firms as bad for a trade deal.
The author, Erin Dunne, doesn’t suggest she knows for a fact that this is Trump’s motive for canceling the new measures. But she is quite correct that it makes sense for Trump to see sanctions that would fall on China as a factor in negotiating a trade deal with China.
Which is what Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, were very shortly to do when the new sanctions were announced. Indeed, the trade deal negotiations kicked off on 28 March in Beijing.
Dunne voiced at Washington Examiner the concern observers might have who viewed this from a certain perspective:
U.S. sanctions are powerful not only because of the strength of the U.S. economy, but because of our ability to unite our allies and compel compliance with sanctions Washington deems necessary. That only works if other countries see those sanctions as legitimate law enforcement actions based on shared concerns. By instead treating sanctions as tools to achieve a trade deal, the U.S. will lose much-needed international support for future sanctions.
That’s not an argument to be dismissed, by any means. But there is another way to see the negotiating dynamic: not as a willingness to lift sanctions for a good trade deal, but as a willingness to reward good behavior from China in the matter of sanctions, as part of the trade deal.
In the first case, Trump would indeed be making a weak (and damaging) move. In the second, he would be offering China the option of ceasing the behavior that needs to be sanctioned, as a point in the overall negotiation. If you’re going to sit down and talk with China about things that get traded on ships, put that on the list and get what you really want: for China to stop doing it.
I don’t pretend to know any more surely than Dunne does that my interpretation is correct. But I do know that it’s Negotiating 101 – and, to use Dunne’s measure, it makes sense.
The rest of the interpretation would be as follows. First, Trump was caught off-guard by Treasury’s announcement last week. I accept the narrative that he was aware of the measures being planned, but Bloomberg’s account of his posture on them rings true to me:
The sanctions on the two Chinese shipping companies were the subject of a National Security Council principals meeting last week, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Robert Blair, a national security aide to White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, warned that he didn’t think Trump would support issuing the measures.
The reason Trump wouldn’t support the measures last week would have been the proximity to the start of trade talks with China. The issue, again, is not that the new measures would cast a pall on the festive atmosphere. It’s that announcing them in advance would be playing a card that needed to be held in reserve, and to have its negotiating value evolve during the talks. It could always be played later.
Keep your eyes on the ball here. The best objective would be to get China to stop moving cargo for North Korea. Treasury sanctions don’t do that. Take as long as you need to let that sink in.
Sanctions punish. They don’t necessarily interdict, which isn’t always even possible. (If you think the U.S. or anyone else is in a position to physically interdict Chinese ships transferring goods to North Korean ships, well, bless your heart. Look at that map up top. I included it for a reason. Those at-sea transfer areas in waters close to China are not places even the U.S. Navy can roam at will, ordering Chinese ships to stop transferring cargo.)
And even if sanctions can manage some interdiction (as with a weaker nation like Cuba, or Iraq in the 1990s), the violators will usually just keep trying.
What if negotiating with China could get something better than punishment under the sanctions regime? What if it could get an actual, verifiable commitment to better behavior? Why wouldn’t that be worth trying?
However you answer that, Trump simply embarrassed his people at Treasury by reversing their announcement. That tells me they probably sandbagged him by announcing the new measures on 21 March in spite of being told that he didn’t want to make this move just yet. Trump has tended to reserve his abrupt, dismissive gestures for subordinates who, shall we say, resist direction.
I don’t think he cares how this move made him look to the U.S. media. I do think he cares that it clarified who gets the final word, for everyone who matters. Those in that category would be his top staff, the bureaucrats at Treasury, and those watching from a distance in China and North Korea.
But make no mistake, as the previous POTUS-in-Chief used to say. Trump got something else out of this, even though it didn’t go according to his original wishes. With the card laid face up on the table, China and North Korea both know the seriousness of what is being planned – and Trump didn’t have to reveal the card himself or be the one to play it.
Trump has simultaneously established that, for all the intelligence and process the fine professionals in the U.S. Treasury Department bring to the administration of sanctions, it’s Trump whom China and North Korea need to focus on. They can’t get around him by getting things bogged down in process with his bureaucracy.
Moreover, the appearance of confusion that now surrounds the new sanctions means that no one but Trump himself has the credibility and horsepower at this point to make commitments on them – or, by implication, on the terms of a trade deal. That lesson may be missed by the editorial staff at the Washington Post, but it will not be missed by China and North Korea. (Or by other targets of sanctions like Iran. What Trump has shown is that his bureaucracy can’t sandbag him decisively, because he doesn’t care how it looks to the media when he undoes their work.)
The arresting thing about Washington in 2019 is not that there’s nothing agile and interesting going on there. It’s that when agile and interesting things happen, no one has any framework other than that of bureaucratic convention in which to discern what they are. Sanctions is sanctions, and process is process, and trade deals is trade deals, and there’s no such thing as shooting for something better than what your well-worn process can procure.
Trump actually does shoot for better, and it seems to panic the folks inside the Beltway. On a number of matters, Trump is now operating inside a largely adversarial bureaucracy’s OODA loop — which he has to do, to get anything done according to a vision different from the bureaucracy’s. This little sanctions announcement, to all appearances, was one of the matters Trump made an agile, unexpected move on. There’s no knowing if he can stroke effectively toward the vision of a better-behaved China. But you can’t find that out for sure by failing to even try.
The screeching and clashing of gears are remarkable to witness. We live in interesting times.