Ominous turn on N. Korea

Two months ago, anxiety soared that the United States could be headed toward confrontation with North Korea over its advancing nuclear weapons program. “We’re sending an armada,” President Donald Trump warned, and a U.S. aircraft carrier arrived off the Korean coast weeks later.

Then it calmed down. North Korea kept on testing, but Trump reacted with restraint, counting on China to ratchet up pressure.

The tone has changed with the death of Ohio student Otto Warmbier after 17 months of brutal confinement by Kim Jong Un’s regime. Trump tweeted Tuesday:

“While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi [Jinping] & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”

So now what? Among those caught off guard and left guessing at what Trump meant are officials in his administration, CNN reported. If Trump is thinking military options, they carry risks as grave as ever.

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Or was the tweet a between-the-lines poke at China to do more, fast? U.S. and Chinese officials were already set to meet in Washington Wednesday on North Korea tensions.

There’s a Russia question?

Holding a briefing at the five-month mark of Trump’s presidency, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he hasn’t asked Trump if he accepts the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia attempted to meddle in last year’s election, reports Newsday’s Emily Ngo.

“I’d be glad to touch base with him and get back to you,” Spicer said. Trump’s statements on Russia’s role have been contradictory.

His handling of issues arising from the Russia investigation is weighing on his ratings with voters -- by 63 percent to 28 percent, they disapprove, according to a new CBS News poll. His overall approval has dropped to 36 percent.

The take-away: Putin isn’t Russia

There are questions on the future of U.S.-Russian relations that go beyond election interference and Cold War revivalism, writes Newsday’s Dan Janison.

This bigger picture involves money, commerce and policy influence, as well as an anti-corruption movement by Russians whose interests and views are not aligned with those of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends.

Meanwhile, Russia considers its options in light of U.S. sanctions over Ukraine.

No final curtain for Spicer

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Changes are likely coming to the White House communications shop, but Spicer may have a few more turns at the podium before shifting to a less visible role.

“I’m right here,” Spicer said, adding, “We’ve been meeting with potential people that may be of service to this administration,” and adding, “We’re always looking for ways to do a better job of articulating the president’s message and his agenda.”

A Steve Bannon crack to The Atlantic on why more briefings are being held off-camera -- “Sean got fatter” -- set off a Twitter skirmish involving Chelsea Clinton: “The White House using fat shaming to justify increased opacity. 2017,” she typed while on line at Starbucks.

Trump pick wins Ga. House seat

Republican Karen Handel won a vacant House seat in suburban Atlanta on Tuesday, giving the GOP and Trump bragging rights in the hardest fought test of party strength since the November election. Democrat Jon Ossoff lost by about 5 points.

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Trump’s tweets had urged support for Handel and attacked Ossoff. “Congratulations to Karen Handel on her big win,” he said in a celebratory tweet after her victory. Democrats took consolation in making the race as close as it was in what has been a reliably Republican district.

Predictably, Trump went into full preen mode. "Well, the Special Elections are over and those that want to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN are 5 and O! All the Fake News, all the money spent = 0."

Health bill waiting room

With the Senate’s alternative to the House health care plan still under wraps, Spicer said Trump wants a bill “that has heart.” He didn’t elaborate and said he didn’t know whether Trump -- or anyone else in the White House -- has seen the legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that GOP leaders will produce a “discussion draft” on Thursday and hinted that a final vote could come next week -- even as key senators, including on the Republican side, expressed concern about being kept in the dark.

What else is happening

  • Under pressure from Trump, Ford canceled plans to build a plant in Mexico to assemble its Focus compact. On Tuesday, the automaker announced it will move some production of the car to China. The Trump administration didn’t criticize Ford. It said its policies will encourage more U.S. production.
  • Trump’s personal silence on the London attack on worshippers leaving a mosque Sunday is his latest example of reacting more slowly, or not at all, on terror and hate assaults against Muslims, compared with those carried out by Islamic extremists, The Washington Post reports.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions went off script to praise Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at a crime conference. Rosenstein was a target of Trump’s ire in a Russia investigation-related tweet.
  • The Chinese government has invited Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to visit Beijing later this year, a sign of their influence in foreign affairs, Bloomberg News reports.
  • Tight security around Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue has eased up since Melania and Barron Trump left for the White House, a relief to neighborhood merchants whose customers don’t have to go through a series of checkpoints, The Associated Press reported.
  • Trump visits Iowa Wednesday to rally his Republican base, but independents who supported him are voicing dissatisfaction with his conduct, The Associated Press reports.