Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The President Is Not a Pageant Producer

The U.S.-North Korea Summit sequel is coming soon and it looks to be even worse than the original.
February 20, 2019
The President Is Not a Pageant Producer
(Illustration by Hannah Yoest)

Pop quiz: Is a second summit with Kim Jong-Un on February 28th (A) a ludicrous waste of time and/or tax payer dollars; (B) a self-imposed trap, a la the government shutdown; or (C) a PR stunt President Trump will use to distract from his wall failure so he can star once again in a days-long, red carpeted television drama?

Trick question, of course. It’s all of the above.

The reviews—at least from the White House—are already in. President Trump says that he thinks the upcoming meeting in Vietnam will be “very successful,” and that he hopes to have “the same good luck as we had in the first summit,” which he called “really fantastic,” and “very positive.”

A discussion is already underway over installing “liaison officers” in each country, and it’s clear that the goalposts for success have now moved from “complete, verifiable, irreversible” denuclearization to a mere pause in testing. Trump now says he wants “No more rockets going up. No more missiles going up. No more testing of nuclear (weapons) . . . I’m in no rush for speed. We just don’t want testing.”

Now he tells us.

It’s ironic that while the world had a collective freakout over “fire and fury” and worried that President Trump might start a shooting war, he was using Shinzo Abe as a sock puppet to nominate himself for a Nobel Peace Prize. Who would have thought that the man whose entire persona is that he is out of forks to give, would care about an award given by a bunch of effete Scandinavians who usually give the prize to commies. (Recent winners include: the European Union and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.)

But it turns out that Trump seems to enjoy the role of peacemaker so much that he’s created a new binary choice: summits or war. And Trump says that only his election which stopped the latter. “He told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea,” Trump said of President Obama. (Obama officials say this is a lie.)

The commemorative coin produced for the first summit, of historic “Peace Talks,” promised: “NEW ERA. NEW GENERATION. NEW LEADERSHIP. NEW HOPE.” The historic part is that Kim got what his family and regime have sought for decades—a summit with an American president—in exchange for nothing.

Actually, even less than nothing because the United States paid for the production of a Hollywood-style trailer for a fantasy Hermit Kingdom complete with skyscrapers, beach resorts, and speed boats. And Trump got a triumph. Or, his kind of triumph, anyway. “[E]verybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” he tweeted after the fact.

Eight months later, things don’t seem so settled. The North Koreans removed anti-American propaganda from the streets—but two months later sent a letter so hostile that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang had to be canceled. Satellite images show that the rogue nation’s weapons sites are still busy at work and intelligence estimates suggest that their weapons could be deployed on rockets that can reach targets throughout the United States. The Missile Defense Report, issued by the Department of Defense in January, said that North Korea remained an “extraordinary threat.”

If anything, North Korea might be an even greater threat today because Kim is no longer isolated. Partly this is Trump’s fault; partly it’s the fault of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In who has been eager to placate Kim. And once a regime has been legitimized, you can’t put the murderous dictator back in the bottle. Legitimization is the new status quo and changing the status quo comes with a cost that no one wants to pay.

And Trump is now personally invested in making sure that North Korea stays legitimized. Recently he tweeted that “North Korea, under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, will become a great Economic Powerhouse. He may surprise some but he won’t surprise me, because I have gotten to know him & fully understand how capable he is. North Korea will become a different kind of Rocket – an Economic one!”

If this sounds a lot like the naiveté of previous administrations who looked dictators in the eye and saw their soul, or sent reset buttons and said they’d be more flexible, well, yes.

But don’t worry: This time will be different. Or something.

Trump is giddy about the second summit because after the fiascos of the last two months, he’s looking for a win any way he can get it. White House officials tell the AP that while they “counseled the president that a second summit would probably not carry the same drama as the first, and needed more concrete results,” the president insisted it “would still be must-see TV, and told one confidant that the idea of ‘good vs. evil’ would be irresistible.”

So it’s full steam ahead to harmony in Hanoi, with all the necessary preparations. Just as Vladimir Putin sent stray dogs and homeless people packing before the Olympics, it’s always important to disappear inconvenient facts before the spotlight hits the world stage—which is why the director of National Intelligence may soon be fired.

Dan Coats recently testified before the Senate that North Korea “is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons and production capability because its leaders ultimately view nuclear weapons as critical to regime survival.” The president’s friend Chris Ruddy then told Christiane Amanpour over the weekend that Coats may be dumped because what he described as “bad form.”

“Dan Coats just went before an open session of Congress and they openly said that they believe the president’s policies and efforts in North Korea are going to fail based on the intelligence,” Ruddy said on CNN.“I think you have a classic example here where Director Coats is trying to make policy and not inform policy.”

Evidently, in Trump’s administration intelligence officials are supposed to hide their real views from Congress in order not to disrupt the commander-in-chief’s gaslighting.

President Trump seems to believe that, when negotiating with dictators, the key is to create a “great relationship.” Once this relationship is cemented, then bureaucrats at the State Department can figure out the nuts and bolts of getting to a win-win situation where both sides have their interests advanced.

In Trump’s view, he is less the head of state than a pageant producer concerned principally with stages with stanchions, lighting and a gazillion flags, top secret leather binders and breathtaking flower arrangements. As he bragged to Jack Nicklaus, Singapore had thousands more cameras than the Oscars and “the buzz was fantastic.”

This may not be a bad way to run a real estate operation in Manhattan. In that business, the various stakeholders have decades-long relationships and all play—less or more—by the same set of rules. The councilmen and the contractors and the union bosses and the developers spend decades working with each other on project after project. And in important ways, most of the deals they do with each other can be win-win. When a building goes up the developer gets rich, the contractors get work, the politicians get to tell their voters that they’re creating jobs. In that world, personal relationships can go a long way.

None of these precepts have any place in dealing with illiberal regimes. Kim Jong-Un operates under totally different constraints, and on a totally different time horizon, than Donald Trump. They have only one point of shared business, not many. And their interests are totally divergent. There is no “win-win” scenario for Kim Jong-Un and America.

North Korea’s murderous, porcine, third-generation dictator seems to grasp all of this. America’s democratically elected president does not.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.