HANOI – While experts debate whether next week’s meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un will be the “Denuclearization Summit” or the “Waste of Time Summit,” the president already seems to be operating with a different name in mind: the “Trump 2020 Summit.”
Just days before Air Force One is set to travel halfway around the world to let Trump meet with the North Korean dictator a second time in just over eight months, the White House has still not finalized the framework of a possible deal, a meeting schedule or even a venue.
“Nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to,” a senior administration official told reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity. “But we are working hard toward a joint statement which will advance each of the initiatives that came out of the Singapore statement.”
Trump, nevertheless, has taken to claiming that his “great” relationship with Kim is yet another success for which he deserves re-election, if not the Nobel Peace Prize.
“When I came in, North Korea was — it looks like it was going to war. You know that. It was going to happen, bad things,” he told a rally audience in El Paso, Texas, earlier this month, days before claiming at a White House news conference that predecessor Barack Obama “was ready to go to war. In fact, he told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea.”
John Weaver, a top aide to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a once and possibly future presidential primary rival to Trump, said the country should fear the summit, given Trump’s track record with Kim.
“Who knows what he’s going to declare as a victory this time?” Weaver said, pointing to Trump’s announcement after the first summit last year that he was canceling a joint military exercise with U.S. ally South Korea. “Kim knows how to play him. All these foreign despots have figured out how to flatter this useful idiot of ours.”
Trump’s White House did not respond to HuffPost queries as to the basis of Trump’s claims about an averted war. Critics, meanwhile, had a simple explanation for it.
“That’s bullshit,” said Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “The risk of war was something that Trump himself created in 2017. He was the one threatening war. Not Obama. He is both the fireman and the arsonist.”
Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council under Obama, said Trump’s description of his conversation with Obama bordered on complete fiction. “Never did Obama say he was on the verge of war,” Price said. “The Obama administration was consistently of the belief ― informed by the best thinking and analysis from our intelligence community, war fighters, and diplomats ― that diplomacy was the only viable option given what we knew would be catastrophic implications of a conflict on the peninsula.”
The risk of war was something that Trump himself created in 2017 … He is both the fireman and the arsonist.”
Joshua Pollack, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
The coming meeting in Vietnam’s capital city is a reprise of one that took place some 1,400 miles to the south last June, in Singapore.
Trump boasted of that first encounter with Kim as a “historic” breakthrough, frequently describing it in speeches and interviews as a major accomplishment that previous presidents had been unable to manage. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated that claim on Friday, asserting that the mere fact the summit is taking place should be considered a victory.
“He has had a great success here in the fact that they were able to even sit down at the table. The fact he is able to do it again is in itself a big success,” she told “Fox & Friends,” one of Trump’s favorite television shows.
In fact, both Kim and his father, North Korea’s previous dictator, had sought meetings with American presidents going back decades. Such one-on-ones were considered major propaganda coups, putting North Korea’s autocrats on the same stage as the leader of the world’s dominant superpower.
Previous presidents all rejected those requests, but Trump accepted his immediately after it was offered through South Korean diplomats during a White House visit early last year. Trump was so eager to brag about his perceived victory that he burst into the press area of the West Wing to break the news himself.
The resulting single-day meeting produced a vague promise that North Korea would “denuclearize” and, in return, bring an end to the international economic sanctions that have isolated the country from much of the world. But even officials from Trump’s own administration, including national security adviser John Bolton, say North Korea has done virtually nothing to deliver on that pledge. Intelligence agency officials, meanwhile, told Congress last month that Kim would not give up his nuclear weapons.
Trump, nevertheless, has resisted such expert advice. When a Center for Strategic and International Studies report found that North Korea is likely continuing to work on ballistic missiles at secret sites in the country, Trump ignored it — and instead attacked The New York Times for reporting on it.
“We fully know about the sites being discussed, nothing new – and nothing happening out of the normal. Just more Fake News. I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Kim knows how to play him. All these foreign despots have figured out how to flatter this useful idiot of ours.
John Weaver, top aide to former Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Pollack worries that Trump is prone to accepting whatever Kim offers solely so he can claim a “victory” for his own political purposes — as he did last June when he surprised his own diplomats and military leaders by acceding to Kim’s request to call off a major joint military exercise.
“He may just call an audible,” Pollack said, adding that this is the result of a president who has more faith in his own instincts than in the professionals working on the details of a possible agreement on behalf of the United States. “The way this is usually done is that the horse goes in front of the cart…. The North Koreans have no incentive to make concessions until Trump is in the room.”
Still, other foreign policy experts argue that talking with Kim is better than threatening him — as Trump had been doing his first year in office — and that the United States’ negotiating team this time is in a much better position than it was heading into the Singapore meeting last June. “Last time they were so unprepared,” said Jenny Town, the assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. “Last time we didn’t even have an envoy.”
And if a deal emerges that ends North Korea’s nuclear program, that will be good for the United States and the world — “even if it was done for all the wrong reasons,” Town said.
One prominent Republican pollster said that voters are not likely to care whether Trump is pursuing an agreement with Kim mainly to help his re-election campaign, or even if he’s not ultimately successful in that effort.
“The image he’s trying to project, that he’s working to protect the country, that’s a positive,” said Neil Newhouse, of Public Opinion Strategies. He added that with a strong economy, work on foreign policy issues like North Korea is a smart move for Trump heading into 2020. “That’s not a bad start for a re-election campaign.”