Trump’s actions reveal an ‘unreliable partner’

President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision against military strikes may have prevented open military conflict with Iran, but it also showed him anew to be an unpredictable, unreliable, partner at home and abroad.

Trump won his job partly on his claims to be a great dealmaker. But the celebrity businessman-turned-president’s negotiating style — repeatedly pushing toward a brink only to pull back at the moment of action — leaves the U.S. lurching from crisis to crisis. On trade tariffs, immigration raids and now the standoff with Iran, his course reversals confound allies as well as adversaries, and his own party in Congress.

As fallout from Trump’s actions reverberated around the globe on Monday, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East in search of a coalition of allies against Iran, the president offered a fresh round of equivocation, defending his decision not to attack Iran even while issuing new threats.

“I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us. A lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future, but I felt that we want to give him this chance,” Trump said.

“We would love to be able to negotiate a deal if they want to. If they don’t want to that’s fine too.”

His backing off on military strikes that were about to be launched in retaliation for the shootdown of an unmanned U.S. drone was just one of several recent tactical shifts by the White House on significant issues. Over the weekend, Trump changed course over immigration raids that had stoked fear among people and families living in the country illegally. He postponed steep tariffs he had announced on Mexico earlier this month, giving immigration talks more time.

The Iran standoff, however, is perhaps the most dangerous, as the two countries escalate rhetoric and actions that raise concerns in Congress and the world at large that Iran and the U.S. could stumble into broad military conflict.

When lawmakers asked the president last week how he would be making his decision on Iran, he responded, “My gut.”

While that decision not to order military strikes appears to have calmed tensions with Iran, at least somewhat, Trump’s messages leave uncertainty about next steps.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a newly elected freshman who served as an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.

“I’m glad that he changed his mind about the strike, made the right decision, but he made it in the worst possible way,” Malinowski said in an interview Monday. “I don’t think anyone has any clue what our policy is.”

GOP defense hawks, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the former vice president’s daughter, warn against Trump’s approach, too. She told a radio host that “weakness is provocative” when it comes to confronting Iran and other adversaries.

Other Republicans say Trump is merely keeping his options open as he pushes Iran to negotiate. That’s different, they say, from his predecessor, Barack Obama, who drew a red line against Syria, but then wavered against taking military action.

Ohio GOP Rep. Mike Turner, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Monday that Trump’s style is more like one you’d see from a litigator trying to get an outcome in talks. “It sort of sends a signal to Iran that if you continue, do expect a military response,” he said.

Trump’s shifting tactics have drawn mostly silence from U.S. allies across the globe, who have declined to publicly assess the president’s decision making or his ”maximum pressure” campaign that is using economic sanctions in an effort to force Iran to the negotiating table over nuclear issues.

The tensions with Iran come amid deepening divisions between the United States and its European allies over foreign policy and trade, with the allies appearing to talk past each other on a matter that all view as a crucial security issue.

While European leaders have been careful not to criticize Trump’s actions, they’re also cool toward U.S. talk of building a global coalition against Iran.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told ZDF television over the weekend, “The strategy of maximum pressure can’t be the right one, because one of the consequences is that we are all talking about how serious the situation is, and that there is a danger of war.”

Germany, France and Britain, as well as Russia and China, remain part of the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned last year as he tries to cut a new accord that would further curtail Iran’s nuclear capability.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close friend of the president, has welcomed Trump’s tough line toward Iran, including last year’s U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal. But the Israeli leader has said little in public during the recent crisis, apparently wary of being seen as pushing the U.S. toward war.

Yoel Guzansky, a former adviser on Iran policy in the prime minister’s office and now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said the administration’s decision against a strike essentially sent Iran the message that “if you don’t kill Americans you can do whatever you want in the Gulf.”

But Tzachi Hanegbi, a Cabinet minister close to Netanyahu, played down Trump’s last-minute decision to call off last week’s airstrike.

“The real big story is that the American policy toward Iran, which has changed to our delight in the last two, three years, is a policy that completely serves the world’s and Israel’s interests, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he told Israeli public radio on Sunday.

That’s a sentiment shared by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are also supportive of Trump’s tough talk on Iran. The Gulf allies have not commented on Trump’s about-face. Indeed, they have been reluctant to publicly criticize him over any of his policies.

Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Trump has made his decisions all about himself, and that means some allies will stick with him while others will have concerns. “That would be the case if he bombed Iran or if he didn’t bomb Iran.”

“For Donald Trump, he’s damned if he’s does, damned if he doesn’t,” she said by phone from a security conference in Hamburg. “He’s so personalized everything in terms of Donald Trump.”

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Associated Press writers Shahar Golan in Jersualem, Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin and Deb Riechmann and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.

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Congress, America’s allies fear Trump’s increasingly frantic, unnerving actions

From members of Congress of both parties to leaders of allied nations around the world, worry is reaching a fever pitch about the frantic, unnerving and unpredictable actions of scandal-ridden American president Donald Trump.

The resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis after Trump blindsided him with the shocking announced, by tweet, that American soldiers will leave Syria within 30 days left both the opposition — and Trump’s shrinking base of support — shaking their heads and wondering what will happen next.

Trump doubled down on his Syria withdrawal by directing the Pentagon Thursday to withdraw halt of the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan — another move decried by senior advisers and military officials.

The move made it clear that the steadfast approaches of Mattis are gone.

“Having Mattis there gave all of us a great deal more comfort than we have now,” said retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “He was the steadiest hand in the Cabinet, and we’ve all slept better and felt better that he was there.”

Even steadfast Trump yes-man, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), appeared to echo Mattis’s critical assessment of Trump’s lack of leadership and publicly urged the President to find a new defense secretary who matches Mattis with an “equally clear understanding of our friends and foes, and recognize that nations like Russia are among the latter.”

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was “shaken” when she heard Mattis resigned.  Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va) called the news “scary.”

Russia’s presidential dictator Vladimir Putin heartily endorsed Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria after claiming a “complete defeat” of ISIS — a fantasy that few others believe.

In his blunt letter of resignation, Mattis questioned Trump’s erratic, impetuous and dangering approach to foreign policy that does not provide needed protection America faces.

Mattis felt he could no longer work with Trump, so he becomes the latest addition to an unprecedented departure of Cabinet and senior aides.

“Secretary Mattis was giving advice the president needs to hear,” said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.  “This is a sad day.”

Sasse also called Trump’s isolationist foreign policy approach “a weak strategy that hurts America and our allies.

Former State Department senior official Eliot Cohen, who served under the presidency of George W. Bush, said Mattis put service to the country above a president.

“He was an example of someone who could retain his character while serving an entirely unqualified and despicable human being,” Cohen said. “The overall caliber and character of those who are still willing to serve will be abysmal.”

European Council on Foreign Relations co-chair Carl Bildt, who is also a former prime minister of Sweden, called Mattis “the remaining strong bond across the Atlantic in the Trump administration.  All the others are fragile at best or broken at worst.”

Bildt adds that Mattis’s resignation sparked “a morning of alarm in Europe.”

Jürgen Hardt, senior foreign policy aide to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, predicts Trump will pull forces next from Western allies and says Praise for Trump’s actions by Russian president Putin “should give all of us concern.”

Norbert Röttgen, chair of the foreign affairs committee in the German Parliament said of Mattis: “The last voice of reason leaves the administration.”

Mattis, he said, understood that “what sets the US apart from other powers is its right net of alliances and the loyalty of its friends.  Trump does not.”

“Believe me, America’s allies are already reviewing all options,” says Francois Heisbourg, president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former diplomatic adviser in France.  “This is big bad.”

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Bipartisan pressure on Trump to get tough with Saudi Arabia

Candles, lit by activists, protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, are placed outside Saudi Arabia’s consulate, in Istanbul, during a candlelight vigil. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

President Donald Trump faces increasing pressure to take tougher measures against Saudi Arabia over the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Trump says that Saudi Arabia is a “spectacular ally” and that he’s not convinced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader, was directly responsible for the Oct. 2 slaying of the editorial columnist for The Washington Post inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But there are increasing calls for more action amid a growing consensus that the crown prince, who controls virtually all major levers of power in Saudi Arabia, must have known about the operation.

The pressure is coming from Democrats and Republicans in Congress and U.S. allies abroad.

France’s top diplomat said Monday that his country was mulling sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Germany on Monday announced that it has banned 18 Saudi nationals from entering Europe’s border-free Schengen zone because of their suspected connections to the killing. German officials, who earlier banned new weapons exports to Riyadh, also said they are halting previously approved arms exports.

Over the weekend, Trump called reports that the crown prince ordered the killing “premature.” He said that it was “possible” and that it was also possible that people will never know the truth.

“Donald Trump just says, ‘Will anybody really know?’ as if our intelligence agencies are incapable of making an assessment,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Monday.

He said CIA Director Gina Haspel and National Intelligence Director Dan Coats need to “come out and provide the American people and the Congress with a public assessment of who ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Saudi Arabia’s top diplomat insists that the crown prince had “absolutely” nothing to do with Khashoggi’s death, but U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that he ordered the killing, according to a U.S. official familiar with the assessment. Others familiar with the case caution that while it’s likely that the crown prince had a role in the death, there continue to be questions about the degree to which he was involved.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that Trump on Tuesday would review information about Khashoggi’s death and then make his decisions about the United States’ “enormously important strategic relationship” with Saudi Arabia, which is aligned with the United States in pushing back against Iran.

The president leaves Tuesday to spend Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, his estate in Palm Beach, Florida. The following week, the president and the crown prince will attend the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Saudi media reported Monday that the crown prince will be present, bringing him face-to-face with Trump and leaders from Turkey, Canada and Europe, among others.

The United States has stepped up its opposition to Saudi Arabia’s war against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. Saudi airstrikes in the war in Yemen have killed thousands of civilians.

In recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have called for a cease-fire in Yemen, and the U.S. has announced it would stop refueling Saudi Arabian aircraft fighting the Houthis. The U.S. also has sanctioned 17 Saudi officials suspected of being responsible for or complicit in the killing.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says sanctioning people who are already imprisoned — including some facing the death penalty in connection with the killing — will have little effect. Paul said the president should cut off arms sales to the kingdom, an action that Trump has repeatedly said he did not want to take.

Late last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that calls for suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia; sanctions on people who block humanitarian access in Yemen or support the Houthi rebels; and mandatory sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

“There must be a transparent, credible investigation into Khashoggi’s murder,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in introducing the bill with two Democratic and three Republican colleagues.

“On Yemen, the administration’s recent decision to suspend U.S. aerial refueling for the Saudi coalition absent an actual strategy for ending this conflict is empty action,” he said.

Some foreign policy experts advocate for a complete reset on relations with Riyadh.

Emile Nakhleh, a former member of CIA’s senior intelligence service, said that since the crown prince assumed power three years ago, he has turned his country into a “strongman autocracy” that can’t be trusted.

“His ruthless power grab, repression of potential challengers within his family, and crackdown on all opposition to his policies and projects inside and outside of Saudi Arabia have put American-Saudi relations at risk,” Nakhleh wrote in an op-ed Monday in the online intelligence newsletter The Cipher Brief. “He feels empowered to crush his potential rivals within the ruling family by his close relationship to President Trump and Jared Kushner.”

Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has worked with the crown prince on various issues, including on how to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

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Trump freezes U.S. ‘war games’ with South Korea

President Donald Trump answers questions about the summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un during a press conference in Singapore. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un concluded an extraordinary nuclear summit Tuesday with the U.S. president pledging unspecified “security guarantees” to the North and Kim recommitting to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Meeting with staged ceremony on a Singapore island, Trump and Kim came together for a summit that seemed unthinkable months ago, clasping hands in front of a row of alternating U.S. and North Korean flags, holding a one-on-one meeting, additional talks with advisers and a working lunch.

Both leaders expressed optimism throughout roughly five hours of talks, with Trump thanking Kim afterward “for taking the first bold step toward a bright new future for his people.”

Trump added during a free-flowing news conference that Kim has before him “an opportunity like no other” to bring his country back into the community of nations if he agrees to give up his nuclear program.

Trump announced that he will be freezing U.S. military “war games” with its ally South Korea while negotiations between the two countries continue. Trump cast the decision as a cost-saving measure, but North Korea has long objected to the drills as a security threat.

Trump acknowledged that the timetable for denuclearization is long, but said, “once you start the process it means it’s pretty much over.”

The president acknowledged that U.S. intelligence into the North Korean nuclear stockpile is limited, “probably less there than any other country,” he said. “But we have enough intelligence to know that what they have is very substantial.”

Trump sidestepped his public praise for an autocrat whose people have been oppressed for decades. He added Otto Warmbier, an American once detained in North Korea, “did not die in vain” because his death brought about the nuclear talks.

Trump said Kim accepted his invitation to visit the White House at the “appropriate” time.

Light on specifics, the document signed by the leaders largely amounted to an agreement to continue discussions as it echoed previous public statements and past commitments. It did not include an agreement to take steps toward ending the technical state of warfare between the U.S. and North Korea.

The pair promised in the document to “build a lasting and stable peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula and to repatriate remains of prisoners of war and those missing in action during the Korean War.

Language on North Korea’s bombs was similar to what the leaders of North and South Korea came up with at their own summit in April. At the time, the Koreans faced criticism for essentially kicking the issue of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal down the road to Tuesday’s Trump-Kim summit. Trump and Kim even directly referenced the so-called Panmunjom Declaration, which contained a weak commitment to denuclearization and no specifics on how to achieve it.

The formal document signing followed a series of meetings at a luxury Singapore resort.

After the signing, Trump said he expected to “meet many times” in the future with Kim and, in response to questions, said he “absolutely” would invite Kim to the White House. For his part, Kim hailed the “historic meeting” and said they “decided to leave the past behind.”

In a moment that would never happen in North Korea, reporters began yelling questions to Trump and Kim after they signed the document, including whether they had discussed the case of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who suffered brain damage while in North Korean custody and died in June 2017, days after he was returned home to Ohio.

In the run-up to the meeting, Trump had predicted the two men might strike a nuclear deal or forge a formal end to the Korean War in the course of a single meeting or over several days. But in the hours before the summit, the White House unexpectedly announced Trump would depart Singapore earlier than expected — Tuesday evening — raising questions about whether his aspirations for an ambitious outcome had been scaled back.

The meeting was the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.

Aware that the eyes of the world were on a moment many people never expected to see, Kim said many of those watching would think it was a scene from a “science fiction movie.”

After meeting privately and with aides, Trump and Kim moved into the luncheon at a long flower-bedecked table. As they entered, Trump injected some levity to the day’s extraordinary events, saying: “Getting a good picture everybody? So we look nice and handsome and thin? Perfect.”

Then they dined on beef short rib confit along with sweet and sour crispy pork.

And as they emerged from the meal for a brief stroll together, Trump appeared to delight in showing his North Korean counterpart the interior of “The Beast,” the famed U.S. presidential limousine known for its high-tech fortifications.

Critics of the summit leapt at the leaders’ handshake and the moonlight stroll Kim took Monday night along the glittering Singapore waterfront, saying it was further evidence that Trump was helping legitimize Kim on the world stage. Kim has been accused of horrific rights abuses against his people.

“It’s a huge win for Kim Jong Un, who now — if nothing else — has the prestige and propaganda coup of meeting one on one with the president, while armed with a nuclear deterrent,” said Michael Kovrig, a northeast Asia specialist at the International Crisis Group in Washington.

Trump responded to such commentary on Twitter, saying: “The fact that I am having a meeting is a major loss for the U.S., say the haters & losers.” But he added “our hostages” are back home and testing, research and launches have stopped.

Giving voice to the anticipation felt around the world as the meeting opened, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday he “hardly slept” before the summit. Moon and other officials watched the live broadcast of the summit before a South Korean Cabinet meeting in his presidential office

The summit capped a dizzying few days of foreign policy activity for Trump, who shocked U.S. allies over the weekend by using a meeting in Canada of the Group of Seven industrialized economies to alienate America’s closest friends in the West. Lashing out over trade practices, Trump lobbed insults at his G-7 host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trump left that summit early and, as he flew to Singapore, tweeted that he was yanking the U.S. out of the group’s traditional closing statement.

The optimistic summit was a remarkable change in dynamics from less than a year ago, when Trump was threatening “fire and fury” against Kim, who in turn scorned the American president as a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Beyond the impact on both leaders’ political fortunes, the summit could shape the fate of countless people — the citizens of impoverished North Korea, the tens of millions living in the shadow of the North’s nuclear threat, and millions more worldwide.

Alluding to the North’s concerns that giving up its nuclear weapons could surrender its primary deterrent to forced regime change, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that the U.S. was prepared to take action to provide North Korea with “sufficient certainty” that denuclearization “is not something that ends badly for them.”

He would not say whether that included the possibility of withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, but said the U.S. was “prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique, than America’s been willing to provide previously.”

The North has faced crippling diplomatic and economic sanctions as it has advanced development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Pompeo held firm to Trump’s position that sanctions will remain in place until North Korea denuclearizes — and said they would even increase if diplomatic discussions did not progress positively.

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Follow AP’s summit coverage here: http://apne.ws/MPbJ5Tv

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