May 18, 2018

Trump's wars: The 3 most concerning possibilities

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America feels closer to three different possible wars than at any point this decade.

The big picture: Possibilities include a confrontation with North Korea over nuclear weapons, a spontaneous war in the Middle East, and a trade war with China.

Why it matters: It’s unlikely any of the three turn into hot wars. But people inside the national security team or in those regions tell us that the possibility of each is higher than publicly appreciated.

  • In all three cases, the kindling is dry enough, the trust broken enough, and the stakes serious enough, that the sparks warrant closer attention.
  • Trump enjoys and even revels in having a whole lot going on at the same time. But Jonathan Swan wrote in Sneak Peek on Sunday that the White House is stretched too thin, with barely enough people to manage the day-to-day, let alone the dizzying array of battlefronts Trump has opened up.

A source close to Trump tells me the Middle East is the most likely of the three to go sideways:

  • "Trump has a ton of personal capital invested in the NoKo and China outcomes, where his instinct is to engage — unlike in the Middle East, where he's typically more inclined to let the regional players hash it out."
  • "[T]here are numerous ways the Middle East could catch fire, and without Trump's personal attention and investment, those outcomes are much less in our control."

On North Korea, White House senior staff tell Jonathan Swan they're still operating under the assumption that the summit happens, with the huge caveat that you never know with Kim Jong-un.

  • Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer told me it's "all a question of how we define denuclearization." If Trump sticks with national security adviser John Bolton's formulation, "this could fall apart quickly."
  • Victor Cha, Korea chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, still thinks the summit will happen, but says to watch whether North Korea follow through on shutting down its test site, or finds a way to delay.

From the Middle East, Barak Ravid — senior diplomatic correspondent for Israel's Channel 10 news, and an Axios expert contributor — tells me there are three main flash points:

  1. Iran: It's still unclear whether Iran continues to abide by the nuclear deal (together with Russia, China, France, Germany and the U.K.). The leading assessment is that Iran will try to find a way to continue the deal.
  2. Syria and Lebanon: For now, it seems both sides do not want an escalation. But the ongoing struggle between Israel and Iran over the future of Syria definitely creates the risk of a war.
  3. Gaza: Unlike the Bush and the Obama administrations, Trump is giving Israel for now a free hand in Gaza.

On trade, Trump met yesterday with Vice Premier Liu He, leading China's delegation for trade talks. The lead story of the N.Y. Times reports: "Chinese negotiators are preparing to offer the administration a deal to buy up to $200 billion worth of American goods, which would allow Mr. Trump to claim victory"

  • "But the Chinese promises would be largely illusory, economists cautioned."
  • Anyway, China denies.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 1,014,673 — Total deaths: 52,973 — Total recoveries: 210,335Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 244,678 — Total deaths: 5,911 — Total recoveries: 9,058Map.
  3. 2020 updates: The Democratic National Committee said its July convention will be postponed until August because of the coronavirus. A federal judge declined to delay Wisconsin's April 7 primary election.
  4. Jobs latest: Coronavirus unemployment numbers are like a natural disaster hitting every state.
  5. Public health latest: Anthony Fauci called for all states across the U.S. to issue stay-at-home orders. The FDA will allow blood donations from gay men after 3-month waiting period, citing "urgent need."
  6. Business latest: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said oil companies are eligible for aid from new lending programs the Federal Reserve is setting up, but not direct loans from his department.
  7. U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt: Navy removes captain of aircraft carrier who sounded alarm about coronavirus.
  8. 1 future thing: In developing countries, consequences of COVID-19 could be deeper and far more difficult to recover from.
  9. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  10. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

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Mark Meadows considers new White House press secretary

Photos: Alyssa Farah, Defense Department; Stephanie Grisham, Alex Wong/Getty Images; Kayleigh McEnany, Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has privately discussed bringing on Pentagon spokesperson Alyssa Farah or Trump campaign spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany as a new White House press secretary, two sources familiar with the talks tell Axios.

Why it matters: Meadows' start on Tuesday as Trump's new chief presents a chance to overhaul a press shop that's kept a low profile since President Trump ended the tradition of daily press secretary briefings.

CNN: Fauci advises all states issue stay-at-home orders

Dr. Anthony Fauci listens to President Trump speak during a briefing on April 1. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci recommended on Thursday that all states across the U.S. implement stay-at-home orders, at a CNN town hall.

Why it matters: The recommendation stands in contrast to President Trump's calls for "flexibility." Nearly 4o states have issued stay-at-home orders to promote social distancing as a way to combat the novel coronavirus — but the orders vary in strictness and duration.

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