The Review, March 10, 2018: Back Channel With Russia, Tariff War on Allies, Meeting With North Korea

South Korean soldier walks past a television screen in Seoul. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

It was just another week of expanded Russia investigations, Presidential action to damage the U.S. economy and botched Trump diplomacy. 

We learned that George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman, testified before Mueller’s grand jury.   In January 2017, before Trump took office, Nader helped organize and attended a meeting in the Seychelles Islands with an emissary from Moscow.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss setting up a back channel between the Trump Administration and Russia.  Such a channel would mean that no one else in the U.S. government would have knowledge of those communications.  That seems perfectly legit. 

On a related note, beginning in late 2016, Congress granted the State Department $120 million to counter Russian efforts to interfered in U.S. elections.  So far zero has been spent, which I’m sure is only a coincidence.

Resignations from the Trump administration continued.  Trump’s top economic advisor, Gary Cohn, resigned this week.  Cohn, former head of Goldman Sachs, spent most of the past year arguing against Trump imposing tariffs on imports.  Cohn resigned when Trump decided to impose them on steel and aluminum.   In defiance of Republicans who had lobbied against the tariffs, Trump announced on Thursday that the tariffs will occur, saying that foreign trade has been “an assault on our country.”   After all, the U.S. Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 worked so well that most economists credit it with a major deepening of the Great Depression.

The tariffs, which Trump said are subject to country-by-country exemptions, go into effect in 15 days.  It gives U.S. allies like South Korea and the European Union scant time to argue for exemptions.   The tariffs will have little effect on China, which has in fact been dumping its steel at prices below its cost, but will harm U.S. allies, a brilliant maneuver.  Canada and Mexico will be exempt from the beginning, as Trump wants to pressure them into revising the NAFTA trade agreement.  They will be delighted.  Even Trump’s own Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, admitted that there may be retaliation from other countries in response to the tariffs. 

Trump, though, focused on what’s important.  He ordered dozens of round, 12-inch replicas of the presidential seal for placement next to the tee boxes at Trump golf course holes.  Of course, it’s a crime to use the seal of the President for private purposes.  

And then there was Trump and North Korea.  South Korea’s national security adviser said Thursday night that Trump agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May.  “We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. 

For the past 25 years, North Korea, which wants to be acknowledged as an equal, now including as a nuclear power, has pressed for a meeting between its leader and the President of the United States.  The U.S. has always refused, believing it would be a major propaganda coup for North Korea and would not lead to any significant results.  There is no reason to believe that North Korea will ever agree to give up its nuclear weapons and missiles.  North Korea believes – correctly – that those are its best defense against military action by South Korea and the United States. 

Apparently realizing the mistake Trump had made, Trump’s press secretary tried to walk back the announcement, saying that the meeting might not happen by May and was dependent on North Korea making concrete and verifiable steps toward denuclearization.  But, of course, this is the Trump administration, so Trump later confirmed that the meeting will occur.  This should go well.

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