WASHINGTON ― The love letters, the lavish praise, the insistence on another face-to-face meeting halfway around the world: as it turns out, none of it was enough for President Donald Trump to win a nuclear deal from a dictator half his age.
Having claimed “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” following his first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last June, Trump returned from their second meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, with zero progress to report ― while being forced to concede that Kim still presents a nuclear threat, after all.
“I think as we continue to work on this in the days and weeks ahead, we can make progress so that we can ultimately achieve what it is that the world wants, which is to denuclearize North Korea,” Trump said in a news conference on Thursday after his much-touted summit ended with half of that day’s scheduled meeting time abandoned.
“There’s no denying that this summit was a total failure,” said Victor Cha, a Korea expert in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council who himself negotiated with North Korea in previous talks. “Frankly, it’s a disaster and a disaster of the president’s own making.”
Despite warnings from both inside and outside his administration that the necessary lower-level preparation for a summit had not really been done, Trump insisted on scheduling a second face-to-face with Kim. Critics said the president was focused on creating a foreign policy “win” to counter both his defeat on funding for his border wall and the continuing federal investigations into his family business and his campaign. Even some Republicans close to the White House acknowledged that Trump was hoping to change the subject to an area in which he has been claiming major success ever since he met with Kim in Singapore.
That strategy fell apart Thursday morning in Hanoi, as Trump and Kim ended their talks even before a scheduled lunch. A signing ceremony for a new statement was scrapped, a news conference set for the late afternoon was moved ahead two hours, and shortly afterward Trump was airborne on the long flight back to Washington.
“No one ever thought it was a good idea except for one person: Donald Trump,” said Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and an NSC spokesman under President Barack Obama. “And that’s been the problem with this process all along. It has revolved around Trump rather than the professionals precisely because Trump wanted the limelight and resulting political boon. We, and he, now see the consequences of that as clear as day.”
After the Singapore meeting, Trump took to praising Kim ― who reportedly has had his uncle and his stepbrother murdered, while incarcerating countless political prisoners ― as a visionary leader. He has called Kim “very honorable,” a “very worthy, very smart negotiator,” and “very open and terrific.” He has gushed over the letters that Kim sent him and told audiences that he and the dictator “fell in love.” Just before the start of the Hanoi summit, Trump even called him “my friend” and said the United States and North Korea have a “special relationship,” a term once reserved for America’s ties to Great Britain.
Robert Gallucci, a U.S. negotiator with North Korea under President Bill Clinton, said he is willing to cut Trump some slack on the over-the-top language, but wishes it were part of a cohesive negotiating strategy.
“Saying the threat’s gone, life is wonderful, we’re in love, all kinds of stuff ― it doesn’t have to mean anything,” Gallucci said. “It certainly wouldn’t be the way I would proceed. It wasn’t the way I proceeded. And as a matter of substance, it certainly was not true. But I feel pretty generous about that kind of nonsense.”
Now a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, Gallucci said the result of the summit is far better than what he had feared, given Trump’s track record ― he unilaterally ended U.S.-South Korea military exercises after the Singapore sitdown ― and his apparent need for a political victory.
“I’m feeling good because nothing really bad happened,” Gallucci said, adding that he understands, but doesn’t necessarily agree with, the view that the summit failed entirely. “These people traveled long distances; there’s enormous hoopla over it. And then, if the meeting isn’t a success, it’s very deflating.”
Cha, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while the two sides could continue to talk, the path forward is unclear because of the collapse at the very top. “When diplomacy at the leadership level fails, there’s not really a whole lot of rope after that,” he said.
For his part, Trump said Thursday that discussions would continue. “I think the relationship was very warm, and when we walked away it was a very friendly walk,” he said.
That friendliness ― at least from the president ― was on display during his 40-minute news conference.
Asked about the June 2017 death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier following his imprisonment in North Korea for the attempted theft of a propaganda poster, Trump said that Kim was uninvolved. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Trump said.
The president also cast doubt on U.S. intelligence analysts’ finding that North Korea is continuing to produce nuclear material and long-range missiles. “Some people are saying that and some people aren’t,” Trump said.
The comments continue Trump’s pattern of believing authoritarian leaders over his own intelligence agencies ― including siding with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s take on the murder and mutilation of a Washington Post journalist and with Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s views on a number of issues, including Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Trump win.