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Trump botches North Korea sanctions announcement, sparking widespread confusion

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their summit in Hanoi last month.
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their summit in Hanoi last month. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Trump sparked confusion across Washington on Friday by calling off an upcoming round of large-scale economic sanctions against North Korea in a dashed-off tweet.

The announcement underscored a rift with his top aides who have called for a tougher posture toward the isolated regime, as well as a larger breakdown of the White House’s public messaging strategy.

“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!” Trump tweeted Friday.

The source of the confusion was Trump’s reference to “today.” No sanctions had been announced Friday, leading analysts to assume the president was referring to a round of sanctions imposed Thursday by the Treasury Department.

In fact, Trump was referring to a future round of previously unknown sanctions scheduled for the coming days, said administration officials familiar with the matter. The officials declined to specify what those sanctions would entail.

The move to forestall future sanctions represents an attempt by the president to salvage his nuclear negotiations with North Korea in the face of efforts by national security adviser John Bolton and others to increase punitive economic measures against the regime of Kim Jong Un.

The confusion created by policy differences inside the administration was compounded by the president’s imprecise tweet.

When asked to explain the tweet, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders simply noted that “President Trump likes Chairman Kim, and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”

Administration officials said Trump is determined to prevent his more hawkish advisers from undercutting what he considers his biggest foreign policy accomplishment: reducing tensions with North Korea and creating the opportunity for a historic deal.

But Democrats and even some Republicans criticized the president’s tweet, saying it demonstrated Trump’s willingness to ease the pressure on Kim to give up his nuclear and ballistic missile program.

“Maximum Pressure means sanctioning North Korea’s enablers. Treasury was right — sanctions should be imposed,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) wrote on Twitter before it was clear which sanctions Trump had withdrawn.

Others said the incident underscores the dysfunctional nature of the White House’s policy process, which seems driven more by presidential tweets than deliberative collaboration.

“Usually a national security process exists to make policy decisions AND agree on rollout and messaging,” Alyssa Ayres, a former State Department official, said in a tweet.

Trump’s decision on the future sanctions is probably aimed at salvaging relations between the United States and North Korea following the failure of the two sides to come to an agreement during last month’s nuclear negotiations in Vietnam.

In the days since the summit, North Korea has begun construction activity at an engine testing site and openly accused Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of creating a hostile environment, charges the two men have denied. After the sanctions announcement Thursday, North Korea withdrew its officials from a liaison office with South Korea. The move was a setback for South Korea’s efforts to normalize relations with the North in tandem with progress on the nuclear negotiations.

Still, Trump has remained fixated on his negotiations with the rogue state, telling senators, visitors and others that he can still make a deal — and that he believes Kim will eventually agree to his demands, according to administration officials who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking.

Trump has sought to project to Kim that while some in his administration are skeptical, he is the ultimate decider and remains eager to reach a landmark agreement, officials said.

“Trump doesn’t want the situation to unravel, and by putting out this tweet, he’s sending a signal directly to Kim that he wants to keep a good working relationship,” said one official familiar with the negotiations.

But the move created confusion Friday as White House and Treasury officials could not immediately explain which sanctions Trump had rescinded.

The day before, Bolton tweeted that the new Treasury sanctions were “important” and that other nations “should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.”

Questions have long been raised about whether Trump’s hawkish advisers are making decisions that reflect the president’s wishes.

Bolton’s differing views on North Korea have not been lost on the president or his staff.

During the summit last month, officials kept Bolton from attending Trump’s dinner with Kim because of concerns that he could hurt the discussions, two administration officials said.

Treasury experts said the lack of coordination inside the Trump administration sent confusing signals to the market and diminished confidence in the U.S. sanctions regime.

“This is totally unprecedented at this kind of level,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior Treasury official during the Obama administration and a scholar at the Center for a New American Security. “He sees great value in the message to North Korea, in indicating to Kim that Trump is on his side and he will hold back the dogs of his own administration to protect their summit diplomacy.”

U.S. sanctions have been the tool of choice for the Trump administration as it tries to coerce the governments of Iran, Russia and Venezuela.

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.