HANOI – In the end, President Trump did the unexpected: He walked away.
A visibly deflated Trump began the press conference wrapping up his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by talking about anything else. He riffed on the potentially nuclear crisis between India and Pakistan. The violent crackdown in Venezuela.Story Continued Below
Only then did Trump turn to the subject at hand: why, after weeks of buildup, flattery and reality TV-style showmanship, his negotiations with the North Korean leader had come to an abrupt halt. “Sometimes you have to walk and this was just one of those times,” he said.
For Trump, it was more than an isolated diplomatic strikeout. It was the latest demoralizing episode in a months-long losing streak that threatens his presidency. A House-side clobbering in the November elections that armed Democrats with subpoena power led to a government shutdown and a losing battle with Congress over a Mexican border wall.
The setback on North Korea, however, was less cut and dried than a losing government shutdown. While critics cast it as failure, the president’s supporters, including many of his own aides, viewed it as a redefining moment — one where a president who had seemed overly eager for a deal showed he was willing to forego one. And the GOP lawmakers who opposed Trump’s shutdown will likely praise his decision to walk away from Kim’s obstinate demands.
Still, many observers saw little good news in the anticlimactic outcome.
“This was a huge failure for Donald Trump,” said Joe Cirincione, a left-leaning nuclear weapons expert who had penned a sympathetic op-ed embracing Trump’s diplomatic efforts ahead the summit. “Korea was the only area of the globe where he was likely to score a diplomatic victory and he’s now blown it.”
Undeniable is the fact that Trump, who is enduring a brutal public testimonial back in Washington from his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, lost out on a moment that could have changed the narrative of his presidency.
He returns home to Washington with little to look forward to. He has no real prospects for legislative action. Democrats in Congress are prepping more blistering hearings. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report may be landing soon, and prosecutors elsewhere are circling. And Trump now hurtles toward 2020 with no progress on the nuclear diplomacy he hoped might elevate him into a statesman above the muddy Washington scrum.
There were signs, around midday, that things were starting to go sideways.
A working lunch between the two negotiating teams was scrapped. So was a ceremony intended to mark the signing of a joint agreement between the two countries. Plans for setting up a liaison office in North Korea, which the two leaders discussed in front of reporters on Wednesday, never materialized.
At around 12:45 p.m. Hanoi time, it became clear the summit was ending with no deal when the White House announced a “program change” and moved up the press conference by two hours, telling reporters the president would appear at 2:00 p.m. rather than at 4:00 p.m. as initially planned. Audible murmurs spread through the buses where the White House press corps was corralled en route to the press conference.
The president had teased the idea that the summit would yield big results. But leaving without a deal was always an option under consideration, according to a senior administration official.
Before the summit, the United States special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, told the president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Trump needed to be able to walk away without a deal, this official said.
The president did just that. He did not appear pleased about the course change, speaking in a monotone and repeatedly kicking questions over to Pompeo.
Trump has reveled in upending the expectations of the smart set in Washington since he crashed onto the political scene three and a half years ago, and he did that again on Thursday. Experts had predicted, and some of his own aides had feared, that the president, eager to avert attention from ballooning domestic troubles, which flared Wednesday as Cohen was decrying him as a con man, a liar and a cheat back in Washington — would trade major concessions for empty promises.
“It was about the sanctions,” Trump said. “Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted, in their entirety, and we couldn’t do that. They were willing to denuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted but we couldn’t give up all of the sanctions for that. … We had to walk away from that particular suggestion.”
While the outcome was unexpected, experts said they were not entirely surprised. “This is Trump world with the president center stage. So it’s not traditional diplomacy. The key issue is what happens next. He seems invested in a negotiation so stay tuned,” said Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and an expert on Northeast Asian security.
President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on during a news conference after a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Thursday in Hanoi.| AP Photo/ Evan Vucci
The president’s willingness to leave Hanoi without a deal came as a relief to some of his aides, who had expressed concern in the days leading up to the summit that the president — eager to divert attention from his ballooning domestic troubles, which flared Wednesday as his former fixer decried him as a con man, a liar and a cheat before a House panel — would trade major concessions for empty promises.
The outcome also suggested the president is committed to seeing North Korea denuclearize before offering sanctions relief, which he and his aides view as the only significant leverage they have over the North Koreans.
That said, the president declined to say whether he was willing to let Kim hang on to some of his nuclear weapons or whether he remained committed to the original goal established by his negotiating team: the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. Asked whether that remained his policy, he replied, “I don’t want to say that to you because I don’t want to put myself in that position from the standpoint of negotiation.”
In their talks, Kim had offered to dismantle Yongbyon, the country’s main nuclear site, but refused to go further. North Korea has continued to built out more than a dozen other missile sites since Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization at his first meeting with Trump in Singapore last June, a development cited by many outside experts as a sign Pyongyang wasn’t serious about giving up its nukes.
“I want to take sanctions off so badly,” the president said, but he concluded that Kim’s Yongbyon offer, “while very big, it wasn’t enough to do what we were doing. … We had to have more than that.”
Trump conceded that the two leaders did not manage to establish a shared definition of denuclearization, but put a positive gloss on the discovery. “He has a certain vision,” the president said. “It’s not exactly our vision, but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago.”
But overall, Trump’s search for positive signs was overshadowed by the speed of his exit and the contrast between Thursday’s outcome and his usual habit of declaring victory, no matter the outcome. A leader who typically enjoys the confrontational give-and-take with the news media limited his press conference to just 38 minutes this time — the one in Singapore ran 70 minutes.
Though the president’s remarks were briefer and less feisty than normal, there was a flash of the old Trump. He gave a shoutout to his favorite Fox News host in the middle of the event — “Sean Hannity. What are you doing here, Sean Hannity?” — and then called on him to ask a question.
Hannity compared the president’s decision to walk away from the negotiating table to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland — talks that collapsed at the last minute when the two leaders failed to reach an agreement on “single word,” as Reagan put it at the time.
At Trump’s side throughout the event was Pompeo, and the president tossed more than one question to his top diplomat, who has invested much of his time and prestige, going back to his stint as CIA director, in the talks with North Korea.
“I’m going to let Mike speak about that,” Trump said, later suggesting that he might have been willing to with cut an agreement North Korea despite Pompeo’s doubts. “I could’ve done a deal today, but it would’ve been a deal that I wouldn’t have been happy about, Mike wouldn’t have been happy about.”
Trump’s tone was a striking shift from the optimism he had expressed only hours earlier. At times in Hanoi, he almost seemed ready to ditch his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan and get behind “Make North Korea Great Again.”
“No matter what happens, we’ll have a deal that’s really good for Chairman Kim and his country,” the president told reporters Thursday morning as he sat across the table from his North Korean counterpart.
Even after the talks fell apart, Trump insisted their unsuccessful conclusion had done nothing to dent his friendly relationship with the 35-year-old dictator — an indication that despite Thursday’s setback, the president remains committed to continuing diplomatic relations with North Korea. “There’s a warmth that we have,” he said. “He’s quite a guy and quite a character.”
And he insisted Kim bore no responsibility for the death of Otto Warmbier, an American student imprisoned in North Korea. “He felt very badly about it,” Trump said. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”
Prior to this week’s negotiations, the State Department’s working-level team had discussion the prospect of opening a liaison office in North Korea, an additional step toward normalizing relations between the two countries. The president had also expressed the desire to sign a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War, which ended with a cease fire rather than a treaty.
Though Trump was clear about his desire for continued engagement with North Korea, he left the prospects of a third summit tantalizingly unclear.
“We’ll see if it happens, it happens,” was all the dejected president would say.
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