Witcover: Uncertainty stalks Trump abroad and at home

Easter Sunday passed amid shaky peace on the Korean Peninsula, but without any diminution of the peril of nuclear war between North Korea and the United States.

President Kim Jong Un's major show of military strength in a huge Pyongyang parade was embarrassingly minimized by the failure of a missile test firing. Meanwhile, an American naval armada featuring an aircraft carrier capable of toting nuclear-armed strike planes cruised the peninsula coast.

The failure of the North Korean test lowered the threat level only somewhat. Vice President Mike Pence, in Seoul, suggested the failure confirmed "the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region." He said it still was American policy to achieve security "through peaceful means, through negotiations."

President Trump, blithely enjoying the Easter weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, offered no comment on the failed North Korean test, other than a flippant comment that Kim has "gotta behave."

The scene, augmented by Mr. Pence's statement that all retaliatory options remain on the table with regard to North Korea, was a far cry from the saner days when there was general agreement in the rational world that the use of nuclear weapons could never even be contemplated.

Throughout the long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, leaders on both sides took the view that unleashing the Doomsday weapon was unthinkable, except by a madman. The growing fear in the present U.S.-North Korean standoff is that the urge to go nuclear may be present in each camp.

Mr. Trump appears at this sensitive juncture to be placing his hopes for avoiding nuclear Armageddon on China restraining its fellow communist state through economic pressures and rational judgment.

While Mr. Trump at least broadly recognizes the huge perils of a nuclear exchange, Mr. Kim holds power in a cocoon of collective self-delusion fed and sustained in the massive demonstrations of the North Korean totalitarian state such as those displayed last weekend.

This stark situation faces Mr. Trump even as domestic concerns intensify. With the end of the Congressional Easter recess, he will encounter a threatened government shutdown over his first federal budget. It includes major departmental and agency cutbacks, new military appropriations and multi-millions for his planned wall along the southern border with Mexico.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has warned that Democratic legislators will be quick to blame the Republican congressional majority for proposals to defund Planned Parenthood and to build the border wall, which the Mexican president says his country will not pay for.

Polls conducted for the pro-Democratic group Priorities USA have indicated 64 percent of Republicans surveyed say they will blame Mr. Trump, House Republicans, the conservative House Freedom Caucusor Speaker Paul Ryan if the government has another shutdown of services.

Another Democratic-financed survey contends Mr. Trump has received little gain in popularity from his military response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons in the country's civil war. That decision is seen as reflecting Mr. Trump's sober reliance on the top figures in his national security team: Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

At the same time, the president's rather casual commitment to the responsibilities of his office continues to be problematic. The Palm Beach Post reported that none of the major foreign policy players was with him in Florida during this very tense and worrisome weekend, raising questions about the degree of his involvement and focus.

Finally, Mr. Trump's seventh escape to his Florida vacation and golfing properties as president continues to keep alive complaints about conflicts of interest -- and about the efficiency of a president who is so often absent from the Oval Office. Why should the taxpayers have to spend millions satisfying his whims as he goes about slashing government services to working Americans, whose taxes keep him flying the friendly skies?

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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