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Trump’s ‘no rush’ foreign policy

“I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

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The president is affording himself ample room for protracted negotiations — and protecting himself in case his strategy goes awry.

President Donald Trump is not in a rush.

“Talks with China continue in a very congenial manner – there is absolutely no need to rush,” he tweeted in May. During a news conference earlier this month, he said, “I think we’re going to do very well with North Korea over a period of time. I’m in no rush.” And when he was asked during a recent Fox News interview about efforts to start a dialogue with Iran, he said, “I’m ready when they are, but whenever they’re ready, it’s OK. And in the meantime, I’m in no rush. I’m in no rush.”

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When it comes to the biggest foreign policy obstacles of his presidency — a trade deal with China, a nuclear agreement with North Korea and the ongoing standoff with Iran — the often restless Trump has invoked the same retort again and again, trying to project patience when pressed about the progress of his high-profile negotiations.

On Friday, Trump reiterated his “no rush” approach with Iran, revealing publicly for the first time that he called off strikes on three sites in the country at the last minute because he was told 150 people would die. The operation, he said, wasn’t “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” as Iran did this week.

“I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The “no rush” refrain is more than a rhetorical tic, according to people close to the president. It’s both a negotiating strategy and an effort to paper over the slow progress of negotiations, current and former administration officials said.

Trump believes the U.S. can wait out its adversaries as it ratchets up pressure on them to engage in meaningful talks using sanctions or tariffs.

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump

President Donald Trump (second from right) meets with China’s President Xi Jinping (second from left) during the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 2018. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

But there’s also a more practical reason for the approach: It gives the president cover if negotiations drag on or his strategy stumbles.

“By showing he’s not under any timeline, he’s trying to avoid stories that are critical of him for not getting results sooner,” a former White House official said. “He’s trying to temper expectations and create a narrative that time is on his side.”

The former official said the strategy marks something of a shift for a president prone to overpromising.

“I think he’s learned. He’s really adjusted his approach. His normal default is we’re going to be doing this very soon, we’re going to be doing this in two weeks, to make it sound like he’s in control,” the former official said, pointing to early missteps of Trump’s presidency, such as when he inflated expectations of a breakthrough with North Korea only to be criticized for not making enough progress.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

As he hits China with billions of dollars in tariffs, Trump is betting that the Chinese President Xi Jinping will relent before he does.

“’I’m in no hurry’ means, ‘I can sustain this,’” said Clete Willems, a former Trump White House official who was closely involved in the China talks. “The gamble for the president, and I think it’s the right play, is that the United States’ economy is stronger than China’s economy and therefore is best positioned to handle any adverse impact from the tariffs.”

The strategy will be put to the test at the upcoming G-20 summit in Japan, where Trump will have a one-on-one meeting with Xi. Administration officials downplayed the possibility that the meeting will result in a deal — not surprisingly, they insist he’s in no rush — though they said it’s possible that the two leaders agree to another temporary tariff freeze that would allow for continued negotiations.

But even as Trump projects calm, there are signs that he might not be as patient as he says he is.

Many in the administration are deeply concerned about the economic and political fallout of the president’s tariffs. While Trump has doubled down in public, some close to him have privately raised concerns that the tariffs could hurt his chances of winning key states in 2020, putting pressure on the president to strike a deal before the election.

Similarly, Trump is keenly aware of the stakes of a failure to reach agreements with North Korea and Iran. Despite his hawkish rhetoric, he has repeatedly resisted military intervention in the countries, reluctant to march into a conflict that he believes could hurt him politically. He has told advisers he’s worried a war with Iran would destroy his presidency, for example.

“He only has one move when it comes to foreign policy. He ratchets it up to 11, and then as soon as he thinks he has something that looks like a win, he’s willing to back down,” said Michael Fuchs, a former top-ranking official overseeing the East Asian and Pacific region at the State Department during the Obama administration.

Fuchs said Trump’s “no rush” approach belies the real risk of the president’s foreign policy approach, which has heightened tensions with Iran, China and North Korea.

“While he says he’s in no rush on any of this, the danger that he is putting America in while we wait is tremendous and its reckless,” said Fuchs, who is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “It’s very clear that President Trump put us here and even he doesn’t have any idea what he’s unleashed.”

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