After Donald Trump agreed to bilateral talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, White House aides quietly started alerting reporters to an unsettling behind-the-scenes dynamic: the American president has refused to do substantive work ahead of the scheduled negotiations. As one senior administration official, put it, “He doesn’t think he needs to” prepare.
Axios reported in April that, according to a source who has discussed North Korea with the Republican, Trump’s position boils down to, “Just get me in the room with the guy [Kim Jong-un] and I’ll figure it out.” CNN added two weeks ago that the U.S. leader “remained squarely focused on the summit’s spectacle,” avoiding “in-depth briefings about North Korea’s nuclear program.”
It’s not just Trump. With less than a week to go ahead of the summit in Singapore, one might assume there are frantic behind-the-scenes efforts underway in the White House. Politico reports today that these efforts simply aren’t happening.
National Security Adviser John Bolton has yet to convene a Cabinet-level meeting to discuss President Donald Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korea next week, a striking break from past practice that suggests the Trump White House is largely improvising its approach to the unprecedented nuclear talks.
For decades, top presidential advisers have used a methodical process to hash out national security issues before offering the president a menu of options for key decisions. On an issue like North Korea, that would mean White House Situation Room gatherings of the secretaries of state and defense along with top intelligence officials, the United Nations ambassador, and even the treasury secretary, who oversees economic sanctions.
None of this is happening. In fact, the same article that Trump hasn’t even “presided personally over a meeting of those senior NSC officials, as a president typically does when making the most important decisions.”
A separate Politico report last week added that White House officials aren’t even sure what it is, exactly, they hope to get out of next week’s negotiations.
So to recap, the United States’ first amateur president, on a whim, agreed to meet with the dictator of a rogue nuclear state. Before making this decision, he consulted with effectively no one. That same president then canceled the summit – again, on a poorly thought out whim – only to un-cancel it soon after.
As the sensitive talks draw closer, that president appears reluctant to do any meaningful work, and his White House’s preparations have charitably been described as “unstructured” and “ad hoc.”
Jon Chait added this morning that Trump “is planning to go into a meeting in which millions of lives might hang in the balance, and negotiate issues he barely understands, and his plan is basically to wing it.”
Fans of the president reading this might be asking, “So what? What’s the worst that could happen?”
As we discussed last month, the concern is that the North Korean leader will exploit the American amateur’s ignorance, making bad offers that Trump won’t realize are weak. Indeed, the Republican could end up embracing the terms of an agreement he doesn’t understand – if it’s more than a page, would he even read it? – simply out of an irrational desire to claim a political victory.
Or put another way, quite a bit could go wrong.