Some progressive Democratic lawmakers have offered cautious support for President Donald Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, thereby parting ways with the party’s congressional leaders, who have been unflinching in their criticism.
These Democrats argue that legislators should encourage Trump when he pursues a diplomatic approach to resolving foreign conflicts ― however little confidence they may have in his ability, in this instance, to achieve the major breakthrough needed to denuclearize North Korea.
Among these lawmakers, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a freshman from Silicon Valley, has been perhaps the most outspoken. Thirteen of his fellow Democratic House members and the delegate from Guam joined Khanna in a Monday letter encouraging Trump in his “efforts to pursue direct diplomacy with North Korea.”
Khanna even went on Fox News on Monday to ding Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for a letter that Schumer and other Democrats signed insisting that Trump adhere to strict conditions as he proceeds in talks with Kim. The most controversial of the requests from Schumer and the others was that the U.S. provide relief from the current sanctions regime against North Korea only when that country has completely denuclearized.
“Saying that there has to be complete denuclearization before America makes any concessions is basically saying, ‘We don’t want to engage in good faith diplomacy,’” Khanna told HuffPost. “The Schumer letter is basically a recipe for the status quo.”
Schumer’s office declined to comment on Khanna’s criticism.
The first sigh of relief we should all have is that Trump has rejected the idea that we need to have strikes on North Korea and he’s open to diplomacy. Rep. Ro Khanna
Other congressional Democrats stopped short of Khanna’s position but nonetheless declined to really dig into Trump over the North Korea summit.
“While very light on substance, the meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore represents a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and moving toward a more peaceful future,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement Tuesday. “Congress has an important role to play in making sure this is a meaningful and serious process and not just a series of photo ops.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is often grouped with Sanders on the Democratic Party’s left wing, opened her statement with a veiled knock at Trump’s “photo op,” which she noted “doesn’t change the fact that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a threat to the security of the United States, our allies, and the world.”
But Warren leavened her skepticism with a gesture of goodwill. “I want to see the President succeed,” she said, “but a handshake is no substitute for a binding, verifiable deal.”
The measured reactions to the summit from Khanna, Warren and Sanders could not be further from the criticism leveled by Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). While Schumer and Pelosi made the obligatory nods to the value of diplomacy after the summit, they both suggested again that the meeting should not have occurred.
Speaking from the Senate floor on Tuesday, Schumer lamented that Trump had granted “a brutal and repressive dictatorship the international legitimacy it has long craved.”
“In his haste to reach an agreement, President Trump elevated North Korea to the level of the United States while preserving the regime’s status quo,” Pelosi said in a statement.
To be sure, critics of Trump’s conduct did not dismiss the notion of diplomacy with North Korea out of hand. Instead, they specifically deplored his decision to suspend certain joint military exercises with South Korea in exchange for a vague, nonbinding written promise that North Korea would work toward denuclearization.
“U.S. gives up one of our biggest negotiating chips - military exercises,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “North Korea ends up BACKTRACKING on previous promises on denuclearization. What the hell?”
In any case, the tactical criticism misses the forest for the trees, according to progressives like Khanna. Less than a year after Trump threatened Kim with “fire and fury” and expressed disdain for diplomacy with North Korea, the U.S. is one step further away from war on the Korean peninsula, they say.
Democrats would be wise to reward Trump for that, according to Khanna.
“The first sigh of relief we should all have is that Trump has rejected the idea that we need to have strikes on North Korea and he’s open to diplomacy,” Khanna said. “The fact that he met with Kim Jong Un is a big deal in itself.”
A better line of criticism, the congressman argued, would be to demand to know why Trump considers diplomacy appropriate for North Korea but tore up the Iran nuclear agreement and has advocated more bellicose approaches in other Middle Eastern nations as well.
“That’s a far more credible attack and a far more intellectually consistent position than trying to out-hawk Trump on North Korea,” he said.