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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School named after Jefferson Davis renamed for Barack Obama

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

A Mississippi elementary school will be changing its name from Davis Magnet International Baccalaureate Elementary — after Confederate leader Jefferson Davis — to the Barack Obama Magnet International Baccalaureate Elementary.

Why it matters: PTA President Janelle Jefferson said Obama was the "number one choice" among the students. Jake McGraw, public policy coordinator of the University of Mississippi's Institute for Racial Reconciliation, told NBC News the students' choice "shows that we don't need to shy away from exploring these controversial topics."

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U.S. support of South Sudanese military may have broken the law

Madut Quat wears a T-shirt depicting Barack Obama as he stands in the overcrowded United Nations' protected camp in Wau, South Sudan. Photo: AP

The U.S. government may have broken its own law by providing support to the South Sudanese military, which has displaced over a million people in what the U.N. labeled "ethnic cleansing," according to an AP investigation. Per the AP, this is the "largest exodus of civilians in Africa since the Rwanda genocide in 1994."

Why it matters: A U.S. Defense Department official, Kate Almquist Knopf, told the AP this is happening "on America's watch." South Sudan's government received over $1 billion a year in support under both the Bush and Obama administrations. And in 2016, a letter from President Obama to Congress allowed training for the South Sudanese army, which "circumvented a law blocking U.S. support for countries that use child soldiers," the AP reports.

What happened:

  • The law in question says that the U.S. is prohibited from supporting "any unit that has committed a gross violation of human rights."
  • Obama sought a long-term relationship with the South Sudanese military, trying to "fix" it, the AP reports. That was after South Sudanese soldiers "killed a journalist, gang-raped women and beat people, including Americans, as they rampaged through a hotel."
  • The United Nations did not send requested peacekeeping troops to the region, and it is currently still considering sending a permanent peacekeeping force. There are currently 12,000 peacekeepers in the country, but there would need to be around 38,000 more to fully secure South Sudan, the AP reports.
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy called U.S. support a "red flag." A State Department spokesperson told the AP that those who received U.S. support were vetted.
The bottom line: A South Sudan researcher, Alan Boswell, told the AP that the U.S. stance was that America did not cause the problem, which meant "we were not going to try and stop it."
Why you'll hear about this again: U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is visiting South Sudan next week to seek a solution to the ongoing, four-year conflict.
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Trump urging House Republicans to pass Senate budget as shortcut to tax reform

Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump has begun calling House Republicans to urge them to pass the Senate budget without going to conference, according to three sources familiar with the calls.

The House passed a budget earlier this month that has more conservative wins, particularly on spending cuts, than the one expected to pass the Senate. But the budget process is primarily a vehicle to get to tax reform, and Trump doesn't want to wait for the House and Senate to work out a compromise. Paul Ryan has previously indicated that he plans to take the budgets to conference.
Why this matters: Trump needs a win urgently and wants to move on to tax reform as quickly as possible. But expect some consternation among fiscal conservatives in the House if Trump gets his way and they're asked to vote on the Senate budget.
Featured

Blue Apron announces layoffs

Bree Fowler / AP

Blue Apron, the meal kit company that went public earlier this year, announced on Wednesday that's its cutting about 6% of its staff company-wide, according to a new SEC filing. The layoffs will cost the company $3.5 million in expenses such as severance packages.

Background: Blue Apron, which ships individually packaged kits for preparing meals, has been struggling since it went public in June. Shortly after, Amazon announced its plans to start selling meal kits, and at last two groups of shareholders later filed lawsuits against Blue Apron, alleging it misled investors about its business before going public.

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Cochran says he has no plans to retire despite health questions

Sen. Thad Cochran. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senator Thad Cochran, who has faced many questions about his health over the years, told reporters on Wednesday that he isn't retiring, according to Politico.

Why it matters: Cochran, who turns 80 years old in December, is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, overseeing billions of dollars in government spending every year. And, as he's up for reelection in 2020, Politico reports the GOP is "desperate for him to stay in office and avoid a special election."

Concerns about his health were raised this week, as he seemed confused when asked if he would remain Appropriations chairman, and had to be reminded where the Senate chamber was located, per Politico.

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White House drafted, but shelved, Niger response

Soldiers bring home the body of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, who was killed in the Niger ambush. Photo: Staff Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne / U.S. Air Force via AP

A staffer drafted a statement of condolence for President Trump to issue on Oct. 5 — the day four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger — but Trump never delivered the remarks, Politico reports.

Why this matters:

  • At a Monday press conference, nearly two weeks after the ambush and the drafting of the statement, Trump fielded criticism about his silence in light of the soldiers' deaths. He responded with the false claim that past presidents, including Obama, never called the families of soldiers killed in action.
  • Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump called all four families to offer condolences. But the White House found itself embroiled in another controversy as Rep. Fredericka Wilson called the president "a sick man" for telling one widow her husband "knew what he signed up for." Trump denied that he said those words, but Sanders did not.

The drafted statement, via Politico:

"Melania and I are heartbroken at the news that three U.S. service members were killed in Niger on October 4 while providing guidance and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terror operations. We offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of these brave American soldiers and patriots. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers. We are also praying for the two U.S. service members who were injured in the incident. We wish them a complete and swift recovery. The heroic Americans who lost their lives yesterday did so defending our freedom and fighting violent extremism in Niger. Our administration and our entire nation are deeply grateful for their sacrifice, for their service, and for their patriotism."


Featured

Trump’s mixed signals on health care deal

Trump met with Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch and other committee members this morning. Photo: Susan Walsh / AP

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders now says President Trump doesn't support the bipartisan Senate health care deal in its current form. That should settle questions about his position for now, but that's after 24 hours of mixed signals that left some of his own advisers unclear where he really stands, as recently as this morning.

What we're hearing: Before Sanders' briefing this afternoon, a senior administration official told us that everyone is hearing what they want to hear, and nobody knows exactly what Trump wants from hour to hour or where he will land. To some extent, his own advisers are never completely sure. But it's fair to say that everyone who is remotely conservative inside the administration is pushing not to keep funding the Affordable Care Act's insurer subsidies without serious concessions.

What's at stake: The deal by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray would fund the insurer subsidies for two years, as well as the rest of this year, after Trump said he was going to cut them off. In exchange, states would get an easier waiver process so they don't have to follow all of the ACA coverage rules.

What Trump has said:

  • Yesterday, after meeting with the Greek prime minister: “it is a short-term solution so that we don't have this very dangerous little period — including dangerous periods for insurance companies, by the way ... For a period of one year, two years, we will have a very good solution. But we're going to have a great solution, ultimately, for health care."
  • Last night, in speech to the Heritage Foundation: "While I commend the bipartisan work done by Senators Alexander and Murray -- and I do commend it -- I continue to believe Congress must find a solution to the Obamacare mess instead of providing bailouts to insurance companies."
  • This morning on Twitter, after Axios event with Alexander: "I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins co's who have made a fortune w/ O'Care."
  • This morning, before a meeting with Senate Finance Committee members: "If something can happen, that's fine. But I won't do anything to enrich the insurance companies."

What Sanders said this afternoon: "A good step in the right direction," but “it's not a full approach, and we want something that goes a little bit farther."

Who's against the deal: House Speaker Paul Ryan — which would make it hard to get the bill through the House, even if it gets through the Senate. Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney has also said the administration wouldn't support an Alexander-Murray bill without big concessions.

Who's for it: It's clearly in Democrats' interests to keep the ACA markets from falling apart, but there's also significant support among Senate Republicans for stabilizing the markets, Sen. John Thune told Caitlin Owens yesterday.

Go deeper: Mike Allen on Trump's improvisational style.

Featured

Ex-Google exec: Sun may be setting on Silicon Valley

Section 32 founder Bill Maris

Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images

Former Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris, who currently runs a San Diego-area VC firm called Section 32, offered some words of warning today during a Wall Street Journal tech conference:

It wouldn't surprise me if the sun is setting on the golden age of Silicon Valley.

Maris added that he also wouldn't be surprised if federal regulators try breaking up tech giants like Google or Facebook, saying that such companies "are more powerful than AT&T ever was."

Featured

Forest degradation makes Amazon vulnerable to mega-fires

Smoke billows from the Amazon Rainforest. Photo: Dado Galdieri / AP

This year is on track to be the worst on record for forest fires in the Amazon, per the Brazilian government. The fires are doing the most damage in the areas of the forest already hit by human-caused forest degradation, Mongabay reports.

  • Distinct from deforestation, forest degradation is the process of felling just the valuable trees in a forest and leaving behind flammable tree limbs and debris, creating a ground zero for wildfires.
  • Why it matters: Climate change, deforestation and forest degradation are causing mega-fires that are devastating large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Carbon emissions from the fires have the capacity to impact climate around the world.

The details:

  • The Amazon is currently experiencing a prolonged drought — lasting up to four months in some parts — which is contributing to the spread of the fires. And "the dry seasons in Brazil seem to be becoming drier and more frequent," scientist Luiz Aragão told Mongabay.
  • As of October 5, 208,278 hot spots have been seen in the region using thermal sensing. Fire brigades lack the manpower and resources to control them.
  • Forest degradation has transformed the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Meanwhile, the uptick of carbon emissions around the world are contributing to bigger fires globally. The concurrent trends comprise a recipe for more mega-fires, scientists say.
  • "If Brazil is to have a chance at controlling the intensity of fires in the Amazon, it needs all countries — including the U.S. — to successfully reduce carbon emissions," Mongabay reports.
Facts Matter Featured

Puerto Rico, by the numbers

A boy accompanied by his dog watches the repairs of Guajataca Dam, which cracked during the passage of Hurricane Maria. Photo: Ramon Espinosa / AP

Exactly one month after Hurricane Maria first made landfall in Puerto Rico, the island is still far from resembling any sense of normalcy. 81% of the island is still without power, 28% is without potable water, and 10% of grocery stores are still closed.

The official death toll is still 48, but the actual number is expected to be much higher as several parts of the island remain cut off from communication. A recent Vox report, which cross-referenced what the government had been saying with reports on the ground, puts the real number of casualties much closer to 450, with another 69 people still missing.

What they're saying

  • Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the Trump administration is "continuing to do everything that we can to help the people of Puerto Rico," and announced that Gov. Ricardo Roselló will at the White House tomorrow.
  • Gov. Roselló said his visit is timed to press the Senate to quickly pass the $4.9 billion relief package that's been proposed. "Time is of the essence and we need quick action," he said. "If we are not considered in equal terms to Florida, the Virgin Islands, Texas and so forth, Congress will have to deal with a worsened humanitarian crisis, massive exodus from the island, health care problems and more."
  • Celebrity chef José Andrés launched a relief effort, #ChefsForPuertoRico, through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen. Together, Andrés, his team and hundreds of volunteers have served more meals on the island than the Red Cross."When we go to a place, we take care of that place until we feel it has the right conditions to sustain itself. That's what a relief organization should be," said Andrés.

The facts

The latest on what we know from Puerto Rico, per FEMA and the PR government site:

  • Boots on the ground: More than 20,000 federal civilian personnel and military service members, including more than 1,700 FEMA personnel, are on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • State help: 31 U.S. states are helping in PR, and 20 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Electricity: 19% of the island has power, up from 14% Monday. Roughly 46% of cell towers have been restored.
  • Food: Approximately 90% of grocery stores are open (410 of 456).
  • Gas: Roughly 79% of retail gas stations are operational (873 of 1,100).
  • Shelter: 4,702 people remain in shelters across the island, down from 5,037 Monday. 100 shelters are open and operating.
  • Transportation: Only 392 miles of Puerto Rico's 5,073 miles of roads are open. All commercial airports and federally maintained ports are open, some with restrictions.
  • Water and waste: Approximately 72% of Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) customers have potable watey. 56% of waste water treatment plants are working on generator power, the same as Friday.
  • Medical care: 95% (64/67) hospitals are open, down from 97% Friday. Many remain on backup power systems, and are without air conditioning. 95% (46/48) of Dialysis Centers are open, the same as Friday.
  • Banks: 65% of bank branches (203 of 314) are open and operating.
Go deeper: Puerto Rico Mayor Javier Garcia Perez delivers food and finds desperation (CNN); Puerto Rico faces a demographic disaster (Washington Post); FEMA Chief Blamed for Katrina Response Says Same Problems Are Happening in PR (TIME)
This post is being updated with the latest information on the Puerto Rico recovery efforts.