Trump surprises his aides and allies with abrupt decrees
WASHINGTON (AP) — There was just one problem when President Donald Trump walked down the stairs of Air Force One and unceremoniously declared that the Islamic State had lost the last of its territory in Syria.
He wasn’t supposed to announce it yet.
Instead, the plan was to let U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces proclaim the victory, in recognition of its losses over five years of battle.
But Trump was on the tarmac on a sunny afternoon in South Florida holding a map of Iraq and Syria, which happened to be upside-down. “Here’s ISIS on Election Day,” he said, pointing to a spot showing IS-controlled territory in red. “Here’s ISIS right now,” he said, gesturing to another point.
Back in Syria, commanders fumed.
“Of course, the SDF was expecting to announce it to the world, but the White House did it a day earlier,” an SDF official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss this issue with the press.
It was one of a series of Trump announcements in a 72-hour span last week that upended planning on three of the administration’s most important foreign policy initiatives. Even with a president known for impulsivity, this was unusual, leaving stunned aides scrambling to explain the moves, according to U.S. and foreign officials.
The announcements, which came as the White House awaited the conclusions of the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller, started with Trump declaring on Twitter that the U.S. would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, reversing decades of American policy.
Trump made the Golan announcement on March 21 while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Jerusalem, planning for a routine day of meetings. It had become anything but routine by dusk.
The announcement was quickly criticized as a violation of international law by friends and foes who view the strategic highlands captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war as occupied territory.
Trump had cast aside plans to announce the step days later during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. He also rejected advice from advisers who suggested he wait, at least until Pompeo left his last Mideast stop in Lebanon, where Syria’s influence is strong.
The abrupt announcement caught Americans and Israelis off guard, delaying Pompeo and Netanyahu’s dinner as they made a hastily arranged call to Trump, during which the prime minister in the midst of a heated election campaign effusively praised the president.
Back in Washington, Trump’s tweet set off alarm at the State Department and National Security Council, not least among lawyers who would have to find a justification for the recognition that flew in the face of U.N. Security Council resolutions previous administrations had supported, according to the U.S. and foreign officials, who had knowledge of the behind-the-scenes discussions and spoke on condition of anonymity.
When Trump formally signed off on the recognition, with Netanyahu at his side at the White House on Monday, he did so through a presidential proclamation rather than by an executive order, which carries more weight.
The next day, as the president flew to his Mar-a-Lago resort, he got word on the plane from acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that the battle to clear the last remaining ISIS fighters from Syrian territory had been won.
The final liberation had been expected for months, and the Pentagon and State Department had worked with the White House to carefully craft a plan for the announcement.
Casting aside a plan to let the SDF announce the victory to the world, press secretary Sarah Sanders walked back to the press quarters aboard Air Force One just as it was landing to deliver the news.
SDF commanders were caught unaware and expressed anger and disappointment, though they said nothing in public, according to the officials.
Americans involved in the campaign searched for a way to make amends, ultimately opting not to release a formal written statement from Trump welcoming the victory until almost 2 p.m. on March 23, following the SDF announcement on the ground in Syria.
Later on March 22, Trump unleashed a tweet from his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, saying he was reversing his administration’s decision to slap sanctions on North Korea.
“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,” he tweeted. “I have today ordered the withdrawal of those additional Sanctions!”
What sanctions was Trump talking about? None had been announced that day. Was he referring to Treasury’s announcement the day before that targeted two Chinese shipping companies suspected of helping North Korea evade sanctions? Was he talking about pausing enforcement of existing sanctions, or saying he didn’t want to see any new ones put on Pyongyang right now?
A person familiar with the action later told The Associated Press that Trump’s tweet was not about the Chinese shipping sanctions at all. Instead, the person said, the president was saying he was opposed to additional large-scale sanctions on North Korea at this time. The person was not authorized to discuss the president’s comments and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sanders would say only that Trump “likes” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and “doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the ranking member of the East Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump’s tweet confused the world and his own administration. “This episode continues to make painfully clear that the Trump administration lacks a coherent, coordinated strategy for denuclearizing North Korea, addressing its other, troubling behaviors, and creating the lasting peace we all seek,” Markey told the AP.
Either way, Trump’s tweet left the impression that he’s unwilling to increase pressure on North Korea, and weakens the effort to get the country to give up its nuclear weapons, said David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I can’t believe that this is the way we are executing strategy on a country like North Korea,” Maxwell said. “This will probably be studied in international relations circles in the future.”