President Donald Trump triggered rampant confusion among his own aides and administration officials when he said Friday he is withdrawing new sanctions aimed at North Korea that were just issued by his own administration.
“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 on Friday.
The tweet set off a firestorm in the administration, with aides rushing – or waiting – to understand what sanctions Trump was referring to and what the policy implications would be. Many aides quickly concluded that the President was referring to sanctions targeting two Chinese shipping companies that have allegedly helped North Korea skirt sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Those new actions were fulfilled under existing sanctions authority.
But two sources familiar with Trump’s tweet Friday afternoon said it was in fact not about those sanctions, but instead about additional large-scale sanctions targeting North Korea that have been in the works. It was not clear why Trump said the sanctions had been announced on Friday, as they had not. One source believed Trump had conflated the sanctions that were still in the works with those announced by the Treasury Department on Thursday, as the latter were the subject of news reports on Friday.
A senior administration official said the administration will not be pursuing additional sanctions against North Korea at this time and that the actions against the Chinese shippers remain in place.
Still, Trump’s announcement amounted to a startling rebuke of policy action being undertaken by his own government, which he in fact believed had already been publicly announced, once again calling attention to the unconventional and undisciplined policy process that has often defined the Trump administration. The White House declined to provide details on the sudden policy shift, but said Trump was pulling back the sanctions because he “likes” North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.
Pressed to expand on Trump’s tweet, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders offered only a brief statement, saying: “President Trump likes Chairman Kim and he doesn’t think these sanctions will be necessary.”
She did not clarify which sanctions Trump was referring to.
Several White House officials told CNN on Friday that they were confused by Trump’s tweet and were unsure what he was referring to.
In the 24 hours before Trump’s tweet, top administration officials were busy publicly heralding the new designations targeting the Chinese shipping companies.
“Important actions today from @USTreasury,” Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, tweeted on Thursday. “The maritime industry must do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices. Everyone should take notice and review their own activities to ensure they are not involved in North Korea’s sanctions evasion.”
In a statement announcing the sanctions, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said that the US believes “the full implementation of North Korea-related UN Security Council resolutions is crucial to a successful outcome” of denuclearizing North Korea.
“Treasury will continue to enforce our sanctions, and we are making it explicitly clear that shipping companies employing deceptive tactics to mask illicit trade with North Korea expose themselves to great risk,” Mnuchin said.
Trump administration officials had also hailed the sanctions as a continuation of the US pressure campaign on North Korea and an attempt to enforce existing sanctions authorities, insisting this was not aimed at widening North Korea-targeted sanctions.
“It is really meant to be a continuous activity of the US, and it really needs to a continuous activity of … all of the UN members to maintain the integrity of the sanctions,” a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday.
More than two hours after the President’s tweet announcing he would roll back newly imposed sanctions announced by the Treasury Department, administration officials involved in the sanctions actions were still waiting for guidance from the White House on the meaning of Trump’s tweet and how to proceed.
“We were caught off guard and people are still trying to figure out what is going on,” one administration official said, nearly three hours after Trump’s tweet. “Everyone over here is watching Twitter and the news.”
These administration officials had yet to receive any guidance on the President’s tweet. For now, they are simply in a holding pattern.
Adam Mount, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said Trump’s move will reduce the pressure on North Korea and make it more difficult for US diplomats to ensure other countries maintain the pressure campaign on North Korea.
“The message this sends is unmistakable. After refusing to consider sanctions relief at Hanoi, Trump volunteers to loosen enforcement in order to preserve the talks,” Mount said. “It shovels leverage to other side, assuring them their tactics could work.”
“Reversing the designations will make it even more difficult for US diplomats to concentrate allies + partners on sanctions enforcement, especially at sea,” he added.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Jiim Acosta contributed to this report.