Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues President Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here's this week's briefing:
Immigration: Caravaning to disaster
While we monitor the progress of the latest caravan of migrants from Honduras, we assess that cutting off US foreign assistance to Northern Triangle countries could actually increase illegal immigration. For example, 30% of Hondurans currently live in poverty, and violent crime and gang violence are rampant.
Withdrawing US dollars that are being used to promote economic development and the rule of law could shatter any hopes of sustainably bringing Hondurans out of poverty or mitigating violence. This could motivate more Hondurans to make the dangerous journey north in search of a safer, more secure environment.
The Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are likely confused by the administration's bifurcated policy toward addressing illegal immigration. They're also probably convinced -- as are other countries around the world -- that you view foreign assistance as leverage to gain support for what you want, rather than as aid for initiatives critical to long-term security and sustainability or to ease human suffering.
In a recent speech, Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that to address illegal immigration, we need to confront problems "at their source in the Northern Triangle." His statement was likely interpreted as an ongoing US commitment to programs that ameliorate the domestic conditions that drive illegal immigrants to head north toward the US.
Your peers in these countries -- and people around the world -- probably view your subsequent threats to cut off foreign assistance to these countries or close our southern border if they don't stop the caravan as a sharp contrast to the Vice President's remarks. But they also probably think it's the latest example of you using American assistance dollars to bully countries into doing what you want.
If you try to shut down the border -- which could violate international law -- or try to send US troops there despite an absence of unilateral authority to do so, these moves would probably be interpreted as a disregard for domestic and international rules -- or law and order -- when they don't suit your needs. These perceptions could be seen as contradicting your political focus on bringing back law and order.
North Korea: Last rites for maximum pressure campaign
Kim Jong Un likely assesses that your maximum pressure campaign is on its last legs. The news that you're prioritizing Kim's happiness -- and canceling what he views as a provocative military exercise with South Korea -- probably signals to Kim that you're willing to forego anything to keep diplomatic engagement going. Kim may be becoming more capable of launching an attack while we lose our force-readiness capabilities to defend South Korea.
With no end for negotiations in sight, Kim may think he could get you to indefinitely suspend major military activities that are critical to security on the Korean peninsula. He now has South Korean President Moon Jae-in more in his pocket, with intra-Korean relations more integrated than any time before the Korean War and Moon seemingly unwilling to do anything that derails further integration.
While Kim thinks our military pressure is waning, he hasn't suspended his own provocative measures. Aside from stopping missile tests and offering access to a nuclear site at some ill-defined juncture, we have no indication that he has stopped amassing weapons of mass destruction or abusing human rights. So, Kim ostensibly thinks he can continue to play agent provocateur while the US becomes less capable of countering him.
What's more, Kim's economic outlook appears rosier. Moon signed an intra-Korean railroad deal -- which would have real financial benefits for North Korea -- despite potentially violating US sanctions. This likely signals to Kim that Moon's not worried about US sanctions as a punishment -- or that the benefits of working with Kim outweigh the costs of upsetting you. He expects others to follow Moon's lead.
Moon has become Kim's personal invitation courier. On Kim's behalf, he delivered an invitation to Pope Francis to visit North Korea. Despite Kim Jong Un's ongoing human rights abuses -- including the persecution of Christians -- the Pope's reported willingness to consider an invitation probably makes Kim feel like he can get away with almost anything while potentially getting blessed by the Pope.
China: The Emperor needs new clothes
Six-and-a-half percent growth would be welcome in many countries. But China's public acknowledgment of this rate over the last quarter is not positive economic news for Beijing. And it is entirely possible that growth rates are even lower than what's officially reported. We know that its primary stock market -- the Shanghai Composite Index -- is down 25% this year, and it could lose more ground if more bad news comes out of Beijing.
Your ongoing trade war may be contributing to lower growth. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He tried to downplay any sustained economic downturn in China and dismissed the idea that your trade moves were contributing to China's economic slowdown, calling the impacts of the trade war "psychological."
We assess that psychological impacts matter, especially when it comes to investors who may already be concerned about the health of the Chinese economy and other market access issues. While the Chinese would typically respond to sluggish economic news with a stimulus package, doing so would increase its already expansive debt burden, which comes with its own set of risks. President Xi Jinping may need to look at some new policy responses.
He may be looking toward your potential meeting with him in November, aware that he needs to consider some new tools to stabilize his economy -- including minimizing any controllable downside risks like more US tariffs.
While he may not be amenable to all of your demands at once, coming to a ceasefire arrangement may be more attractive now than it was before last quarter's growth rate was released, particularly because Chinese authorities know that China's relative economic slowdown stands in contrast with US economic growth and "remarkably positive" economic outlook.
Russia: One fine day
During National Security Advisor John Bolton's trip to Moscow this weekend, Bolton probably found Russian officials in a good mood because their boss is having one fine day.
Despite the Department of Justice's criminal complaint against Elena Khusyaynova, a Russian national, for 2018 election interference, Putin is probably still going to quote what you said a few months ago: That he is "fine" -- at least from his perspective.
While our intelligence and law enforcement community continues to collect information on, and take action against, Russian ongoing election interference, Putin probably doesn't think he's faced with any insufferable cost. The newest action against Khusyaynova is more symbolic than impactful to Putin. Plus he knows you (and Pence) are now focusing your election interference ire on China while you discuss a second summit with him.
For Putin, this is a winning scenario. A bifurcated US government approach -- on the one hand your team is addressing threats from Russia and on the other, you are extending yourself to Putin -- paints a confusing picture for many, including voters going to the polls in just over two weeks. And we know how much Putin likes to sow confusion.
If you do withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, expect Putin to consider it a win. Because of your track record of withdrawing from agreements like the Paris Climate Accord and Iran nuclear deal, Putin will probably view a unilateral withdrawal as something he can leverage to showcase the unreliability of the United States. This applies to China as well, with which we do not have any agreement to constrain missile development.
While our allies know the reality -- that Putin has consistently violated the treaty -- Putin will probably continue escalatory arms race rhetoric including bragging about his newest hypersonic missile because he knows you like to praise your superiority in all theaters. And a public superlatives contest, from his perspective, would help him look tough domestically while making you look like you're insecurely trying to prove your own strength.
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