Scoop: Trump urges staff to portray him as "crazy guy" - Axios
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Scoop: Trump urges staff to portray him as "crazy guy"

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

In an Oval Office meeting in early September, President Trump gave his top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, an Art of the Deal-style coaching session on how to negotiate with the South Koreans.

Trump's impromptu coaching came in the middle of a pivotal conversation with top officials about whether or not to withdraw from the U.S.-Korean trade deal. Sources familiar with the conversation recounted the exchange for Axios, and the White House did not dispute this account.

A number of senior officials and cabinet secretaries were present for the conversation, including Defense Secretary Mattis, Agriculture Secretary Perdue, and Secretary of State Tillerson. At issue was whether the U.S. would withdraw from the Korean trade deal — an action Trump threatened but still hasn't done.

"You've got 30 days, and if you don't get concessions then I'm pulling out," Trump told Lighthizer.

"Ok, well I'll tell the Koreans they've got 30 days," Lighthizer replied.

"No, no, no," Trump interjected. "That's not how you negotiate. You don't tell them they've got 30 days. You tell them, 'This guy's so crazy he could pull out any minute.'"

"That's what you tell them: Any minute," Trump continued. "And by the way, I might. You guys all need to know I might. You don't tell them 30 days. If they take 30 days they'll stretch this out."

"You tell them if they don't give the concessions now, this crazy guy will pull out of the deal."

Why this matters: Plenty of world leaders think the president is crazy — and he seems to view that madman reputation as an asset. The downsides are obvious: the rhetoric can unnerve allies and has the potential to provoke enemies into needless, unintended war. But Trump keeps using the tactic, with varying degrees of success:

  • Just today, the president undercut his secretary of state by suggesting diplomacy with "Little Rocket Man" in North Korea was a waste of time — implying that only military action would resolve the conflict. "Save your energy Rex," Trump tweeted, "we'll do what has to be done!"
  • We've never seen anything like this before. Trump's tweet, undercutting Tillerson's diplomatic efforts, comes a day after Tillerson acknowledged for the first time that the administration was in direct communication with North Korea.
  • Trump's tweet also undercuts a statement made Tuesday by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Dunford: "The military dimension today is in full support of the economic and diplomatic pressure campaign the secretary of state is leading in North Korea."

Trump's comments today belong to a pattern that fits the "madman" or "he might just be crazy enough to do that" theory of international relations:

  • Trump warned North Korean leaders in August that if they keep threatening the U.S. they "will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
  • In his first speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Trump threatened to "totally destroy North Korea" and called Kim Jong-un "Rocket Man."
  • He threatened over Twitter to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement: "We are in the NAFTA (worst trade deal ever made) renegotiation process with Mexico & Canada.Both being very difficult,may have to terminate?"
  • He unnerved America's allies during the campaign when he called NATO "obsolete" and refused to say whether he'd defend a treaty ally under attack from Russia. Trump has spoken more favorably of NATO since becoming president, but he still often complains about NATO members failing to "pay their fair share," and he's urged Angela Merkel to increase Germany's military budget.

Some top national security officials, past and present, appear uncomfortable with all the talk of war. Former CIA Director Petraeus made nuanced remarks recently about the benefits — and potentially catastrophic risks — of the "madman" approach to foreign relations. And General Dunford's comments last week are striking when set beside Trump's public statements about North Korea.

"I have been very careful, at the military level, to make no statements that would exacerbate the current crisis," Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I certainly won't comment on things that our senior political leadership have said, but I certainly can tell you, inside the military we've made no statements and we've had a conscious decision not to make any such statements, to ensure that the lead right now is Secretary Tillerson, and the message being delivered is primarily being delivered by the State Department."

Are Trump's tactics working?

The president's top aides argue his negotiating strategy has forced Mexico and Canada to renegotiate NAFTA, China to put more pressure than ever on North Korea, and NATO allies to spend more than they'd otherwise have spent on their militaries (a claim that's impossible to adjudicate.) Also, one reason China is getting (slightly) tougher is that the situation has gotten appreciably worse. Kim Jong-un will soon be able to hit the U.S. and couldn't under Obama.

  • Regarding NATO, "no one can dispute that [Trump's] 'crazy' produced alarm, pledges, a new focus on defense, domestic pressure in Europe to do more," a top GOP foreign policy official told me. "It did a lot in just a couple of months, but that's not much time to do a lot. It got deep-sixed. Trump is no longer 'crazy.' He's now toeing the traditional U.S. policy toward NATO, reassurance, back to 'we'll defend you no matter how little you do.' Meaning there's no need for the Euros to spend another dime. That's what being 'not crazy' gets you."
  • The senior official, who is no fan of Trump's, said the president can make his strongest case on the effectiveness of his "madman" strategy when it comes to China and NAFTA; but far more questionable with NATO. "NATO is illustrative of what might have worked but was cut short due to the alarm of the national security types," the official told me. "Jaw-boning Merkel won't get one more pfennig out of Germany's overflowing treasury because she knows there's no downside to doing nothing."

Bottom line: Trump's threats can only produce short-term results, if he doesn't follow through on them. As the senior official put it: "If you make a threat and don't carry it out — such as Obama's 'line in the sand' in Syria — your credibility is shot. 'There he goes again' will be the response to any new declaration."

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Pope vs. Fake News

Pope Francis. Photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Pope Francis warned journalists about committing the "very serious sin" of sensationalizing the news and providing one-sided reports, per AP:

"You shouldn't fall into the 'sins of communication:' disinformation, or giving just one side, calumny that is sensationalized, or defamation, looking for things that are old news and have been dealt with and bringing them to light today."

Why it matters: The Pope is planning to dedicate his annual communications message to "fake news," the AP reports. This is one of several instances of Trump's "fake news" message making its impact around the globe.

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North Korea sanctions are keeping food, medicine from citizens

Pyongyang citizens gathering to mourn in front of a portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at the Pyongyang Gymnasium. Photo: KCNA / AFP / Getty Images

Sanctions against North Korea could increase cases of acute malnutrition among children, and hamper humanitarian efforts, according to a Washington Post report.

Why it matters: While sanctions were enforced with the intent of punishing the regime for its nuclear threats and missile launches, an American neurosurgeon who operates in North Korea, Kee Park, told the Post "they're hurting the wrong people."

  • The U.K. announced last month it would cut off aid to North Korea.
  • South Korea hasn't "delivered on its September pledge to give $8 million to the World Food Program and UNICEF for children and pregnant women," the Post reports.
  • The U.N. resident coordinator in Pyongyang, Tapan Mishra, wrote to U.N. officials that "crucial relief items, including medical equipment and drugs, have been held up for months...they are not on the list of sanctions items."
  • A humanitarian worker in Pyongyang told the Post said Chinese suppliers "have decided that it's not worth the exposure or the risk of their reputations" to continue sending supplies, despite not sending anything already banned by sanctions.
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Inside the Pentagon's multi-million dollar program to explore UFOs

An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. Photo: AFP staff / Getty Images

The Pentagon has officially confirmed the existence of its $22 million program to investigate unidentified flying objects (UFOs), reported by Politico and the New York Times almost simultaneously today.

Why it matters, per Politico's Bryan Bender: "The revelation of the program could give a credibility boost to UFO theorists, who have long pointed to public accounts by military pilots and others describing phenomena that defy obvious explanation, and could fuel demands for increased transparency about the scope and findings of the Pentagon effort, which focused some of its inquiries into subjects such as next-generation propulsion systems."

The details of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program:

  • Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader requested the program's funding in 2007. Much of it came from Robert Bigelow, the billionaire behind an aerospace program who currently works with NASA.
  • Bigelow said on CBS last May that he was "absolutely convinced" that UFOs have visited Earth and that aliens exist.
  • Pilots and various military personnel have claimed to see UFOs that "maneuvered so unusually and so fast that they seemed to defy the laws of physics."
  • One UFO sighting collected by the program is documented in "footage from a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet showing an aircraft surrounded by some kind of glowing aura traveling at high speed and rotating as it moves," per NYT.

The program's funding ended in 2012, though some of the program's backers say it continues to operate. A Pentagon spokesman, Thomas Crosson, told NYT: “It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding, and it was in the best interest of the DoD to make a change."

Why now: Luis Elizondo, a military intelligence officer who helped run AATIP, resigned in October because he said there wasn't sufficient time and effort put into the UFO investigation, according to his resignation letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis.

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The crackdown on college fraternities

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at Ohio State University. Photo: Dake Kang / AP

"[A]mid worries about endemic binge drinking, sexual assault and a startling spate of deaths, schools are going beyond the old practice of shutting down individual [fraternity] houses to imposing broad restrictions on all Greek life," the N.Y. Times' Anemona Hartocollis reports atop column 1:

  • "Activities like fraternity parties and initiations have been suspended or curtailed at colleges including Ball State, Indiana University, Ohio State and the University of Michigan, as well as at least five where deaths have occurred this year: Florida State, Louisiana State, Penn State, Texas State and Iowa."
  • Why it matters ... Tracy Maxwell, founder of HazingPrevention.org: "There is definitely this moment in time where society is not willing to accept behavior that in the past has been acceptable."

Go deeper: The state of college Greek life.

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Americans loathe Washington, but like home

Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images

Americans are pessimistic about Washington and think the country is on the wrong track (69%), but are optimistic about their local communities.

That's the encouraging finding of an AP-NORC (University of Chicago) poll:

  • 9% think the country has become more united under Trump, while 67% think the country is more divided. (44% of Americans said in a poll last year that Obama's presidency had further divided the country.)
  • Even Republicans think Trump has divided America more than uniting it, 41% to 17%.
  • But, but, but ... "[P]essimism about the president and national politics doesn't extend to local communities. ... [A]bout half of Americans said they feel optimistic about their local communities" — 55% of Ds and 50% of Rs.
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Mexico grants military more power in fighting drug war

Soldiers from the Mexican Army and Mexican Marines patrol along Acapulco's coastline. Photo: AFP photo/ Francisco Robles/Getty Images

The Mexican military will be granted more control in the fight against the country's drug war, which has increasingly become more violent under President Enrique Peña Nieto, after a law passed in Mexico's Congress yesterday.

Why it matters: Critics of the law — including United Nations officials and human rights groups — argue that it would "will vastly expand military authority without checks and balances and offers no exit strategy to cede eventual leadership of the campaign to combat drugs to an effective police force," per NYT.

Why now: Violence from Mexican drug cartles has gotten worse under President Peña Nieto's tenure — NYT notes that 2017 has been "the deadliest in two decades." And since troops were first sent to combat the drug gangs in 2006, "more than 200,000 people have been killed in the drug war and 31,000 people have gone missing," according to official statistics cited by NYT.

The changes:

  • Mexico has maintained civilian control over their army for nearly the past 100 years, which has ultimately given local law enforcement officers complete jurisdiction over their areas. This law would give the government and the military more control.
  • The Mexican military currently operates in 27 of 32 states around the country — they were only in six states when Peña Nieto became president five years ago.
  • Peña Nieto would have to issue a public executive order detailing his reasons for sending in more troops to different areas. That EO would last a year.
  • The military will have more authority to carry out investigations on their own terms, thus breaking from the civilian control under which they've previously operated.
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White House paper suggests solar tariff support

Workers seen by solar panels of the Isyangulovo solar power plant in Zianchurinsky District, the Republic of Bashkortostan. Vadim Braidov/TASS Photo: Vadim Braidov\TASS via Getty Images

A White House document circulating within the Trump administration lays out a case for imposing new trade restrictions on imports of solar panel equipment from Asia, according to a report in Politico.

Why it matters: It's the latest sign that President Trump's hawkish trade stance toward China will soon lead to tariffs that U.S. solar energy developers fear will sharply drive up costs and curtail new project development.

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) concluded in September that low-cost imports — many of which come from Chinese owned companies operating in Asia — were a cause of "serious injury" to domestic panel manufacturers.

The finding came in response to a petition from two financially distressed manufacturing companies, Suniva and SolarWorld.

What's next: The White House is slated to make a decision as soon as next month on whether to impose tariffs or perhaps some other forms of solar trade restrictions.

In November the ITC recommended tariffs that are less aggressive than what the petitioners sought. But the White House has wide latitude to decide what form of penalties, if any, to impose.

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How Affordable Care Act cutbacks will hurt minority communities

Two Florida resents shop for insurance at a local center offering Obamacare enrollment. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Trump administration cut the Affordable Care Act federal insurance enrollment period in half (to 45 days), which has people scrambling to get insurance before time's up. But the administration's cutbacks to the program overall could have a disproportionate effect on minority communities, per NYT.

Why it matters: The Affordable Care Act has reduced the disparities in coverage across minority groups, even as African Americans and Hispanics throughout the country remain more likely than whites to be uninsured.

By the numbers:

  • 16% of Hispanics overall remain uninsured, down from 24.4% in 2013.
  • 10.5% of African Americans overall remain uninsured, down from 15.9% in 2013.
  • Among Hispanics ages 18-64, the uninsured rate is 17.9 percentage points higher than whites of the same age. In 2013, the difference was 26 percentage points.
  • Among African Americans ages 18-64, the uninsured rate is 4.6 percentage points higher than whites of the same age. In 2013, the gap was 10.4 percentage points.

One example of how the administrations cuts is already affecting minority communities, detailed by NYT, is at the Center for Family Services in New Jersey. The nonprofit center assists local residents across seven counties. After its federal funding was cut by 64%, the staff of 21 members who collectively spoke six different languages has been reduced to a staff of six that only speaks English and Spanish.

With a reduced enrollment period and a smaller staff, it's difficult for nonprofit groups like this to serve residents who need help signing up for insurance. “We're still getting out there and doing events," Pamela Gray, a navigator with the group, told NYT, “but the less people, the less people you're able to serve."

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Trump had fewer deportations than Obama's first year

Despite President Trump's tough-on-immigration rhetoric, there were around 177,000 fewer deportations this year than in 2009, Obama's first year in office. That number is lower than any year during Obama's presidency, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data.

Data: Immigration and Customs Enforcement via FOIA office; Chart: Andrew WItherspoon / Axios

One big thing: The numbers didn't really start to decline for Obama until after he signed DACA in 2012. It protects illegal immigrants from deportation if they came here as children, but in September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the program.

Why it matters: Sessions gave Congress six months to figure out what to do about the Dreamers, and if nothing is done, the removal of DACA's protections could lead to an uptick in deportations.

Don't forget:

  • Since the very beginning, Trump has campaigned on a border wall, more deportation officers and tougher immigration policies.
  • In February, then-DHS Secretary John Kelly signed two memos, which allowed ICE officers to arrest anyone they suspected of violating immigration laws, among other things. The memos caused a panic, and there were several stories published about ICE roundups and immigrations raids.

Trump vs. Obama: ICE officers in Texas feel a "night and day" difference in their work between Trump's and Obama's presidency, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Axios in October. He said that during the Obama administration "they were basically told not to do their job."

By the numbers:

  • Trump's highest deportation month had only about half the number of deportations as Obama's highest month.
  • In 2008, there were more than twice as many non-criminal deportations as criminal deportations. The ratio in 2016 was 0.71 — the third-lowest ratio, following 2015 and 2013.
  • Unauthorized border crossing attempts have also dropped by almost 150,000, according to Customs and Border Protection data. This could partially contribute to the declining deportation numbers, as a number of arrests and deportations occur at the border.
  • While deportations are down, there was a 25% increase in ICE arrests, the Washington Post reported.
Editor's note: This post has been updated to reflect that 2009 was Obama's first year in office, not 2008.
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Trump admin bans CDC from using certain words like "fetus"

Outside the CDC headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo: Photo by James Leynse / Corbis via Getty Images

Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were told by the Trump administration on Thursday that they are not allowed to use the words like "science-based," "evidence-based" and "transgender," in their budget documents, according to a CDC analyst who spoke to The Washington Post.

Why it matters: The administration wants to control what it considers controversial wording from agencies as they submit documents for the president's budget for 2019, expected to be released in February. However, the analyst told the WashPost they "could not recall a previous time when words were banned from budget documents" due to ideology.

The details, per The Washington Post:

  • The list of banned words: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based and science-based.
  • The meeting about the banned words was led by Alison Kelly, a senior leader in the agency’s Office of Financial Services, who told the CDC officials she was just the messenger.
  • The CDC has offices that directly work with public health issues that relate to those words, such as its research on fetus development for the Zika virus and preventing HIV among transgender people.

Other CDC officials confirmed the existence of a list of forbidden words, the article said, although spokespeople from CDC or OMB did not comment by their deadline.