WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump scheduled a dinner for Wednesday with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, but only after House Democrats announced that his former lawyer and “fixer” would publicly testify on Capitol Hill at about the same time.
The apparent “counterprogramming” of Michael Cohen’s expected damaging testimony concerns arms control and national security experts, who fear that Trump is trying to distract public attention from Cohen, even at the cost of U.S. interests.
“I’m shocked ― shocked ― that this White House would contour its foreign policy around an unfolding domestic scandal,” joked Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and a National Security Council spokesman under then-President Barack Obama. “In this case, we see the president’s domestic troubles literally driving his actions on the world stage.”
Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis said he is not merely concerned about Trump unwisely giving Kim concessions ― he is convinced it will happen. “The engagement with North Korea is driven entirely by having a positive news story to distract from negative news at home,” said Lewis, director of the East Asia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “That’s why the president is willing to look the other way as North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons and ICBMs.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to comment on the dinner’s timing.
She did issue a statement about Cohen on Tuesday, calling him a “disgraced felon”: “It’s laughable that anyone would take a convicted liar like Cohen at his word, and pathetic to see him given yet another opportunity to spread his lies.”
Cohen was a personal lawyer to Trump and top adviser to Trump’s family business before he pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with federal investigations into his former boss. Speaking before the House oversight committee, he is expected to provide details of Trump’s business and personal dealings, including his involvement in paying hush money to a porn star as well as his attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow with the help of Russian leader Vladimir Putin even as he ran for U.S. president in 2016.
Trump arrived in Hanoi in the evening hours of Tuesday local time, or Tuesday morning in the United States. The White House originally had planned for the first full day of his visit to consist of late morning and afternoon meetings with Vietnamese officials and the second day to be his “summit” with Kim.
White House officials always caution that preliminary schedules, particularly those for foreign trips, are subject to change, up until the last minute. But in this case, it appears the change did not start to take place until after the House oversight committee announced on the afternoon of Feb. 20 that Cohen would appear in open session. The dinner with Kim, preceded by a short one-on-one meeting, was only disclosed by Sanders during a Monday night refueling stop by Air Force One on its flight to Vietnam.
Perhaps relatedly, the addition of the dinner with Kim also decreases the amount of time that Trump will have to sit in his hotel room and post statements on Twitter in the hours leading to Cohen’s testimony.
“We do not want to repeat the mistakes of Singapore.”
Trump, who gained national fame for portraying a savvy billionaire businessman on the NBC reality television show “The Apprentice,” is no stranger to creating events to compete with other news.
During the 2016 Republican primaries, as his opponents finally started attacking him, Trump boycotted a televised debate and staged a rally for the same evening, ostensibly a fundraiser for veterans ― although Trump himself did not actually make a donation until The Washington Post began reporting that he had reneged on his promise.
More recently, on Jan. 3, the day that Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was elected House speaker, Trump made his first and only appearance in the White House briefing room, where he delivered a statement about his proposed border wall but refused to take any questions.
One former senior White House official in the Trump administration said it was “100 percent” certain that the Wednesday dinner meeting is an attempt to diminish the news coverage given to Cohen.
Bruce Klingner, a North Korea expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he was less concerned about Wednesday’s dinner than he was about the summit more broadly, which he said is taking place despite there having been little if any progress on “de-nuclearization” since the first summit in Singapore last June.
While Trump and his White House have been trumpeting the lack of further nuclear or missile tests and the return of some 55 sets of American service members’ remains from the Korean War, Klingner said those “concessions” from Kim are not worth much.
“North Korea has been holding these remains for decades in a warehouse, just to dole them out,” he said.
Just as Trump’s earlier unilateral cancellation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises was not matched by a cancellation of North Korean military exercises, new concessions by Trump in Hanoi will not likely be reciprocated in good faith, Klingner said. For that reason, he said, a formal peace declaration ending the Korean War ― which would supplant the armistice signed in 1953 ― would be ill-advised.
“In my view, that’s a meaningless feel-good gesture that carries inherent risk,” Klingner said. “We do not want to repeat the mistakes of Singapore.”
He said he understands that Trump believes himself to be “the negotiator-in-chief” who can get talks back on track after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and special envoy Stephen Biegun failed to make much progress, but that Kim is taking advantage of the “top-down” approach that Trump seems to prefer. “They see that they are more likely to get concessions or items that they want from the president than they are from Pompeo or Biegun,” Klingner said.
According to Lewis, the North Koreans have every reason to expect they will get what they want from Trump, given how he has fawned over Kim personally.
“If Kim Jong Un jumped up on the table, pulled down his pants and took a dump in front of Trump,” said Lewis, “the president would tell us that he was especially impressed with a private but moving gesture made by Kim.”