Winter Olympics freeze North Korea tensions. TPP back on. By Hamish McDonald.

Trump’s second year commences with chaos

Members of the US Congress leave Capitol Hill after a vote that ended the government shutdown this week.
Members of the US Congress leave Capitol Hill after a vote that ended the government shutdown this week.
Credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Welcome back, for the second year of the Trump administration. It started in familiar chaotic style. One minute into the first anniversary of his inauguration last Saturday, the United States federal government shut down after the Congress controlled by Trump’s own party failed to pass finance bills in time.

The sticking issue was the fate of the 700,000 “dreamers” – young people who’d arrived as illegal immigrants with their parents now threatened with deportation to countries they hardly know if Barack Obama’s protection is removed.

With Donald Trump wavering all over the place, and wondering to a visiting congressional delegation why the US had to accept so many migrants from “shithole” countries in Central America and Africa, Republican anti-immigration hawks had thought they had the opening for a crackdown. Partly because five of their own senators didn’t agree with this, the Republicans failed to get the 60 (out of 100) votes needed to keep government money flowing.

The bureaucracy was back in operation on Tuesday, following a hurried agreement on funding until February 8, after Republican senate leader Mitch McConnell gave a promise to work on a deal for the dreamers in the meantime.

It was not a great look for the self-proclaimed master of deal-making in the White House. But Trump is just shrugging it off, like everything else. Michael Wolff’s fly-on-the wall account of the president’s fragile grasp of briefings, his long nights alone with television and junk food, and his increasingly frequent repetition of stories, was partly countered by a medical exam showing an “excellent result” in a basic cognitive test – though he had to add an inch to his height to avoid being classed as obese. Revelation that his lawyer paid porn star Stormy Daniels hush money over a sexual tryst in 2006 was just old, fake news.

He’s “not at all” worried that the special investigator Robert Mueller has just questioned his attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia before the 2016 election, and is “looking forward” to testifying under oath himself to Mueller. And it’s just not true, as website Axios reported, that Trump’s selection as FBI chief, Christopher Wray, had threatened to resign because Trump and Sessions pressured him to purge loyalists of his dismissed predecessor, James Comey.

Sadly he’s right not to be worried. The history of bankruptcies, three marriages, tabloid sexual affairs, conflicts of interest, dealings with Russian mafia, muddled understanding of policy, insults to allies, a nuclear attack alert in Hawaii… “Despite all of this,” notes US Politics Today editor Joe Rothstein, “nearly 80 per cent of those who identify as Republicans, 40 per cent of all voters nationally, and, increasingly, the leadership and vast majority of the Republican-controlled Congress, supports and defends Trump.”

The International Monetary Fund says the US and the global economy can expect a year of strong growth, though it may turn to custard by 2022 when higher public debt hits. Trump claims credit by just being there. His end-of-year $US1.5 trillion tax cut has certainly pushed the cheap-money-fuelled sharemarket even higher. It may save the Republican majorities in the November midterm congressional elections. That’s long-term for Trump.

Chequered Korea

North and South Korea agreed to field joint teams in several events at the Winter Olympics in the south’s Pyeongchang next month, and the US has postponed regular exercises with South Korean forces until later, easing tensions on the peninsula. The question is: what happens on February 25, after the medals have all been handed out?

In Washington policy circles the idea of a US pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities is getting serious debate. Some analysts think US air and missile forces could easily get through the obsolescent defences, and as Edward Luttwak put it: “do to North Korea what Israel did to Iraq in 1981, and to Syria in 2007 – namely, use well-aimed conventional weapons to deny nuclear weapons to regimes that shouldn’t have firearms, let alone weapons of mass destruction”.

The counterarguments: Kim Jong-un is unlikely to feel his leadership can survive accepting such humiliation; he may not have a deliverable nuclear weapon, but he could rain artillery on Seoul; his military may have no way of knowing it was a limited strike and assume an all-out attack.

It may all be bluff. But one taking the prospect of conflict seriously is Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In uniform as chief of the Central Military Commission he reviewed People’s Liberation Army (PLA)troops during an unusual nationwide military drill, then convened commanders and key regional officials to warn them to “be prepared for any contingencies”.

In a follow-up meeting, generals in the PLA’s Northern Command, covering the provinces bordering North Korea, met with the region’s top Communist Party officials and issued orders to PLA units, armed police and reservists to stay on alert. Reports earlier said camps were being readied in case of a flood of refugees.

At crisis points last year, China indicated it was still bound by a defence treaty until 2020 to aid North Korea if it was attacked. But according to some Japanese analysis, Xi is thinking more of intervention to seize control of North Korea, one force crossing the land border to secure nuclear sites, another crossing from Shandong to land marines near Pyongyang.

Pacif ic vim

The Trans-Pacific Partnership was not dead after all, just resting. Justin Trudeau announced at the yearly Davos gathering this week that Canada was back in, clearing the way for the trade, investment and internet pact to be signed into force in March.

But the TPP has had its wings severely clipped, as US allies such as Japan, Australia and Singapore have not persuaded Trump to reverse his decision last January to withdraw the US. Still, it remains a $14 trillion combination of economies, and Trade Minister Steve Ciobo says it will eliminate tariffs and restrictions on a lot of Australian exports. Ratification is also a wedge for Labor, which is worried about surrendering judicial power to commercial arbitration panels and allowing more skilled workers to cross borders.

The Americans, who were driving the TPP until Trump’s election, are now pedalling in the opposition direction. This week his administration announced stiff anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese solar panels and South Korean washing machines. It’s weighing similar measures against Chinese steel and aluminium, and talking about abandoning the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.

Smugglers’ bounty

While the rest of the navy seems to have been tied up in port, the crew of HMAS Warramunga has been hard at work in the Arabian Sea over Christmas and New Year, intercepting three suspicious dhows over two weeks that turned out to be carrying a total 11.5 tonnes of hashish and 180 kilograms of heroin, worth an estimated $629 million.

Since no one else in the media was asking, The Saturday Paper was curious what happens to the dhows and their crews, as the Defence Department says the drugs could be helping fund terrorists.

Defence says the interceptions were made under United Nations Security Council resolutions and customary international law. “Due to the many difficulties involved with successfully prosecuting the smugglers in a relevant jurisdiction, the crew and dhows are ordinarily released to continue their journey once the narcotics have been seized,” a spokesperson said.

Still, it’s all worthwhile, Defence insists: “Once the narcotics have been seized, the operation’s main objective has been achieved: the particular drug-smuggling venture has been successfully disrupted, the drug smuggling syndicate leaders have made no profit from it, and they are aware that future ventures similarly carry a high risk of failure.”


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2018 as "Trump’s second year gets off to trying start ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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