For the rest of December, Washington Examiner reporters will be exploring what 2018 has in store in a number of areas, from the White House and Congress to energy and defense. See all of our year ahead stories here.
Ask White House aides what President Trump has planned for 2018 and the breadth of his ambition is surprising. From revamping entitlement programs and breaking ground on his border wall to boosting the GOP’s congressional majority, the president’s domestic agenda for year two is shaping up to be far more extensive than year one.
His foreign policy agenda, however, is likely to have a much narrower focus. Despite the vast range of diplomatic challenges facing the U.S. around the world, experts expect Trump will set his sights primarily on tackling just one: North Korea.
Trump enters 2018 with a thinner and more disciplined West Wing, the product of several year-end departures and the no-nonsense leadership of John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who became the president’s chief of staff in July. Gone are the days of serial leaks, publicly-aired disputes among White House aides, and the looming threat of entering the new year without a single major legislative victory. The president is beginning 2018 determined to plow ahead on his agenda at home and abroad, regardless of the federal investigation into his associates' ties to Russia.
With a historic tax reform bill in his rear view, White House aides say Trump will kick off the new year with a major push for welfare reform. Cutting entitlement spending is something Republicans have wanted to do for years, despite Trump’s repeated campaign-trail promises not to touch Social Security or Medicaid. Administration officials are said to be eyeing a handful of anti-poverty programs, and may unveil an executive order tied to welfare spending during the first few weeks of January.
The White House must also strike a deal on immigration in the first two months of 2018 as Trump approaches a self-imposed March 5 deadline to cancel protections for undocumented youths. Both parties have signaled an openness to bipartisan immigration reform, but the president’s non-negotiable item — construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border — could complicate such an effort on Capitol Hill.
Though returning to Obamacare carries political risk in a midterm year, the White House will have a tough time navigating 2018 without working to stabilize insurance premiums. Republican lawmakers folded a last-minute repeal of the law’s individual mandate into their year-end tax reform bill, and they are likely to see its impact in the year ahead.
The president knows he will have a tough time accomplishing all of the above in a year’s time, so ensuring the GOP expands its congressional majority this fall is also a top priority for the White House. And though most political strategists claim the odds are stacked against Republicans in a midterm year based on precedent and the president’s low approval ratings, some Trump allies believe the president’s message will convince Americans that a divided government would be disastrous for their safety and economic security.
“When it comes down to 2018, as a general theme you basically have a president who is going to go out there and campaign with Republicans … saying, ‘We need to cut taxes. We need to repeal and replace Obamacare,’ or ‘We did these things, but now we need to rebuild our military,’ and the Democrats’ only message is ‘no,’” said Marc Lotter, the former top spokesman for Vice President Mike Pence.
Beyond the challenges facing Trump at home, the president must confront a series of crises overseas. Yemen is dealing with a humanitarian crisis that a U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, has made worse. China has largely ignored Trump’s calls to clean up its trade relationship with the U.S. Russia has pursued a peace framework in Syria that leaves its authoritarian leader, President Bashar Assad, in power over the Trump administration’s objections. Palestinians and Arab leaders are still reeling over Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The future of the Iran nuclear deal remains uncertain as Congress delays taking action on the agreement.
But perhaps no other foreign policy priority is more pressing than North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, which sparked months of tensions between Washington and Pyongyang this year as North Koreans raced to develop nuclear weapons capable of striking the U.S. mainland. Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s brutal dictator, tested a ballistic missile as recently as Nov. 28, pushing the Trump administration further toward its limits in dealing with the provocative regime.
“My understanding is that the president’s priority is North Korea,” said Fred Fleitz, senior vice president at the Center for Security Policy. “However, I also believe that the president has made the decision that he is going to back out of the Iran deal at the proper time, sometime in 2018.”
Although Trump has long vowed to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the specter of North Korea’s nuclear weapons has eclipsed almost every other foreign policy issue facing this administration.
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said Trump could face an impossible choice on North Korea in 2018.
“I think North Korea will be the biggest issue going into 2018, there’s no doubt about that,” Kazianis said. “For the Trump administration, there’s really only two options at this point. It’s either containment, which basically means accepting North Korea as a nuclear state, or war.
“And war would mean potentially millions of people dead,” Kazianis said.
A source familiar with the situation told the Washington Examiner that Trump received a briefing this month about the threat of an electromagnetic pulse attack from North Korea on the U.S. An EMP attack could wipe out the country’s electrical grid and potentially leave millions of Americans without power, making it a particularly menacing kind of threat from a regime that frequently expresses a desire to harm the U.S.
Kazianis said the Trump administration was unlikely to initiate any kind of military confrontation with North Korea in the next three months given the Olympic games that will soon take place in South Korea and the lack of conventional assets in key positions around the peninsula.
But later next year, Kazianis said, the U.S. could determine that war with North Korea is inevitable.
“This all boils down to one thing: Can you live with North Korea having nuclear weapons that can hit the U.S.?” he said. “If you can’t, that means war, and that means opening the ultimate Pandora’s box.”