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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The United States was closer to war with North Korea last summer than is widely known, sources close to the White House tell us. And now that same dangerous uncertainty is back.

The big picture: The White House is now sufficiently suspicious of the intentions of Kim Jong-un — "Little Rocket Man" to Trump only eight months ago — that Pyongyang would likely have to grovel to get the president to personally re-engage.

  • H.R. McMaster, who was President Trump's national security adviser at the time, thought there was a real chance the Pentagon would have to confront Kim Jong-un militarily.
  • The U.S. was preparing for military contingencies with enough specificity that spooked the South Koreans, who were worried enough that they brokered the conversations with the North that led to the summit offer.

Jeff Prescott, a National Security Council senior director under President Obama, said Trump "has been acting like a politician seeking a political 'win' rather than a statesman acting in our national interest."

  • Why it matters, per Prescott: "[W]e ... find ourselves with heightened risk of war, dimmer opportunities for engagement with North Korea, isolated from our partners, and blamed for today’s outcome."
  • "[T]he risks of war are again unacceptably high."

Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, said the announcement is "a big embarrassment for the president, no matter how he tries to spin it."

  • "[T]he language in the letter is harsh, and reopens talk of military preemption," Bremmer said. "[T]his is a direct slap in the face to [K]im."
  • Bremmer said Trump killed the summit because the risk of a blowup was rising: North Korea wasn't about to accept unilateral denuclearization, and wasn't likely to show up and give Trump personal credit for the breakthrough.

The White House view: Trump believes he got something — U.S. hostages returned from North Korea— for nothing. And he’s followed through on enough threats (strikes on Syria, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, moving the embassy in Israel) that Kim Jong-un can't assume he's bluffing.

Be smart: The world now enters a second dangerous summer.  

P.S. N.Y. Times Quote of the Day ... Robert S. Litwak, senior vice president of the Wilson Center for International Scholars, who wrote a detailed study of how to deal with defanging the North Korean threat:

  • “Zero warheads was never going to be on the table.”
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Go deeper

Exclusive: Law enforcement organizations back Biden pick for assistant AG

Vanita Gupta Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Local and federal law enforcement officials are backing Vanita Gupta, President Biden’s nominee for associate attorney general, according to letters sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee and obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The Major County Sheriffs of America noted Gupta “emphasized that she does not support efforts to ‘defund the police'” and highlighted her desire to improve criminal justice through methods that include increased training for law enforcement officials.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

U.S. releases report finding Saudi prince approved Khashoggi operation

Photo: Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has released an unclassified report assessing that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) approved the operation to "capture or kill" Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Driving the news: The White House also announced sanctions on entities implicated in the murder, though not on MBS directly. Officials also announced a new "Khashoggi ban" under which individuals accused of harassing journalists or dissidents outside their borders can be barred from entering the U.S.

About 20% of U.S. adults have received first vaccine dose, White House says

Joe Biden speaks during an event commemorating the 50 million COVID-19 vaccine shots. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Nearly 1 in 5 adults and nearly half of Americans 65 and older have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, White House senior adviser Andy Slavitt said on Friday.

The big picture: The Biden administration has previously said it has secured enough doses to vaccinate most of the American population by the end of July.