This story was updated on March 26, 2019 at 11:24 am.
Last Thursday, for the first time since the second U.S.–North Korea summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the end of February, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions related to North Korea, designating two China-based shipping companies that had facilitated North Korean sanctions-evasion activities.
But a day later, President Donald Trump perplexed analysts by tweeting that he had ordered the U.S. Treasury Department to withdraw the “large scale Sanctions” that he said had been announced on March 22. No such sanctions had been announced that day; North Korea–watchers were left scratching their heads. Several news agencies ran stories suggesting that the president’s announcement pertained to the two Chinese entities that had been designated a day earlier, but that was hardly convincing as a “large scale” sanctions package.
It quickly became clear what had happened—or at least what the White House wanted to portray as having happened. The Washington Post first reported that the president’s tweet, according to administration officials, had preempted a new package of Treasury sanctions. A few days later, however, Bloomberg reported that explanation was meant to obscure Trump’s actual intention, which did pertain to withdrawing the sanctions against the Chinese companies. The episode showcased yet another example of a fractured executive branch at work, a mainstay feature of this administration since January 2017. But it also suggested that Trump might finally have grasped what it will take to keep the talks alive.