Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the December 9 edition of Meanwhile in America, CNN’s daily email about US politics for global readers. Sign up here to receive it every weekday morning.
So much for falling “in love.”
North Korea is celebrating a “very important test” at a launch site that US President Donald Trump declared would be dismantled earlier this year – the real-life culmination of a recent exchange of verbal projectiles across the Pacific. Last week, Trump blasted Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” and North Korea fired back that he was suffering “a relapse of the dotage of a dotage.” The North’s threat of a “Christmas gift” for the US looms over the coming weeks.
The dealmaker-in-chief has made much of his efforts to sweet-talk Kim. Yet three face-to-face meetings between the pen-pals have done little to end the last Cold War-era standoff. North Korea now accuses Trump of stringing Kim along to keep him sweet during his 2020 US reelection race, and has ruled out another made-for-TV summit without a big payoff: Kim wants benefits before the year’s end, and has already warned he won’t denuclearize.
There’s no sign the US is preparing for the kind of intricate diplomacy needed to keep Kim in his box. If this is just classic North Korean brinkmanship, Trump may be shrewd not to give in to another cycle of attention-demanding threats. But he’s not alone in drawing a blank – no other recent President has got the better of Pyongyang. In fact, Trump seems more concerned with squeezing more cash out of South Korea for the privilege of hosting US troops.
But he’s taking a big risk. Any step closer to a confrontation across the 38th parallel is dangerous in itself. Trump can’t afford a return to North Korean long-range missile and nuclear tests that some experts fear could be on the launchpad. And politically, a new showdown with the hermit nation would reveal his approach to Kim to be empty photo-op diplomacy – and expose a misguided belief that there’s something to be gained by palling around with tyrants.
“there is certain hostility, there’s no doubt about it”
On Saturday, Trump told reporters at the White House that he has “a very good” relationship with Kim and that he thinks they both want to “keep it that way.” “The relationship is very good, but you know, there is certain hostility, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.
The next day, Trump tweeted a warning to the young North Korean leader, saying Kim had “far too much to lose” and “does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States.”
The King says…
A gun rampage by a Saudi officer at a US naval base in Florida is underscoring the curious relationship between the White House and the House of Saud.
Trump rarely waits for the facts before leaping on possible instances of terrorism for political gain. But in the hours after the attack in Pensacola, he was unusually circumspect, and joined US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in transmitting Saudi royals’ expressions of shock, condolences and offers of financial restitution to victims’ families.
Would Trump have been so restrained if the attacker came from another country? He has previously brushed off outrage toward the kingdom over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and looked the other way from the humanitarian crisis caused in Yemen by a brutal Saudi-led military operation.
Saudi Arabia, a customer for huge US arms sales and regional counterweight to Iran’s clerical regime, is the centerpiece of Trump’s Middle East strategy. But that hasn’t shielded it from scrutiny on Capitol Hill. The country is facing a bipartisan reckoning among lawmakers who question the entire premise of the US-Saudi alliance. And the Florida shooting will only draw attention back to Trump’s soft spot for the oil-rich monarchy.
The dam has burst on Trump’s environmental meditations. Days after bafflingly linking global warming and ocean dumping, Trump held forth on water:
“We have a situation where we’re looking very strongly at sinks and showers and other elements of bathrooms where you turn the faucet on — and in areas where there’s tremendous amounts of water, where the water rushes out to sea because you could never handle it, and you don’t get any water,” Trump said Friday to reporters at the White House.
“You turn on the faucet and you don’t get any water. They take a shower and water comes dripping out. Just dripping out, very quietly dripping out … People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once.”
Trump, a former builder with an eye for bathroom fixtures, appears to be previewing another attempt to roll back environmental regulations by taking aim at rules for modern appliances meant to save water.
“There may be some areas where we’ll go the other route — desert areas — but for the most part you have many states where they have so much water — it comes down, it’s called rain. They don’t know what to do with it,” Trump said.
For once, Bill Weld, a long-shot candidate for the Republican nomination, got in the last tweet, writing “Poor @realDonaldTrump — can’t drain the swamp, can’t flush the toilet!”
That’s how many jobs the US economy created last month, taking the unemployment rate back to a 50-year-low of 3.5%. That kind of sustained prosperity makes a powerful argument for Trump’s reelection.
There are caveats. Manufacturing is hurting in the Midwest states that won Trump the White House in 2016. And given the good times, Trump’s approval rating should really be at least 15 points higher. But a strong economy has historically been the most important factor in whether a President gets a second term. So while Trump is vulnerable to any softening growth, slowing job creation or outside shocks next year, for now, he has something to boast about.