Early this morning, the three Americans freed from North Korean labor camps returned to the United States. As NBC News reported, Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk, who is also known as Tony Kim, were granted amnesty by Kim Jong-un.
What made this morning’s arrival a little different, however, was the fact that they were greeted by Donald Trump upon their arrival. And while the president made a variety of comments about what the men had gone through and his expectation that an agreement with North Korea may be his “proudest achievement,” Trump also took a moment to share a little joke.
The arrival of the released prisoners in the dead of night created a made-for-TV moment for Trump, a former reality television host.
“I think you probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for three o’clock in the morning,” Trump joked to cameras.
At first I thought there was simply no way he actually said this, even in jest, but according to the official White House transcript, this is precisely what he said. (Trump also inexplicably declared this morning, “We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people.” I have a hunch the former hostages might disagree.)
Just so we’re clear, it’s unambiguously good news that these Americans have returned home. Full stop. There’s no reason to see developments like these through a partisan or political lens.
I just wish I had some confidence that Donald Trump felt the same way. In fact, we have every reason to believe that when it comes to these three former hostages, the president has politics very much on his mind – largely because Trump told us so.
Just last week, as negotiations over the hostages’ fate continued, the American president turned to Twitter to declare, “As everybody is aware, the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail. Stay tuned!”
The point wasn’t subtle: Trump wanted to signal to the public that he can do what Barack Obama could not. What the Republican neglected to mention was that Tony Kim was detained at Pyongyang airport in April 2017 as he was preparing to leave the country, while Kim Hak-song was held in May 2017 for “hostile acts against the republic.”
Or put another way, two of three Americans were detained after Obama left the White House.
It’s a safe bet Trump didn’t mention this: because he hoped to use the hostages to score some political points. With this in mind, it’s hard not to wonder whether Trump also created a spectacle this morning, turning these Americans’ arrival into a photo-op – in which he could reflect on the television ratings – as a way of helping himself.
This is not to say Trump was indifferent to the hostages’ fate and cared only about self-promotion, but the question for the White House is why the president seemed so interested in the “optics” surrounding these developments.
I realize that the modern presidency necessarily involves stagecraft, and White House officials feel as if they have no choice but to consider how events might “play for the cameras.” But quite a few American hostages were released from North Korea during the Obama administration, and the Democratic president didn’t feel the need to exploit any of their arrivals.