North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump (R) at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella...
Saul Loeb

The war with North Korea that Trump thinks he prevented (but didn’t)

Updated

On Friday, a reporter asked Donald Trump about the prospects for denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. The president’s answer meandered a bit – a common occurrence – but at the heart of his answer was Trump’s insistence that he deserves credit for averting a war.

“When I came into office, I met right there, in the Oval Office, with President Obama. And I sat in those beautiful chairs and we talked. It was supposed to be 15 minutes. As you know, it ended up being many times longer than that.

“And I said, ‘What’s the biggest problem?’ He said, ‘By far, North Korea.’ And I don’t want to speak for him, but I believe he would have gone to war with North Korea. I think he was ready to go to war. In fact, he told me he was so close to starting a big war with North Korea. And where are we now?”

It was, by Daniel Dale’s count, the 25th time the Republican told some version of this story. The core elements of the tale tend to be roughly the same: Obama told Trump that the United States was on the brink of a war, and Trump, thanks to how awesome his awesomeness is, was able to avert the deadly conflict.

And while it’s difficult to say with certainty exactly what was said between Obama and Trump two-and-a-half years ago, it’s very easy to dismiss what the Republican has repeatedly claimed.

Obama’s top national security aides have emphatically denied Trump’s version of events, explaining that Obama identified a longstanding security threat, which is a far cry from saying the two countries were “ready to go to war.”

A New York Times analysis added, “The notion that Mr. Obama, who famously equivocated about a single missile strike against non-nuclear Syria to punish it for using chemical weapons against its own civilians, would have started a full-fledged war with North Korea seems hard to imagine, to say the least. But this presumption has become part of Mr. Trump’s narrative in patting himself on the back for reaching out to North Korea to make peace.”

So what’s driving Trump to lie about this? There are a few angles to this to keep in mind.

The first is that he’s desperate for some victories after a series of embarrassing defeats, and if that means exaggerating events beyond recognition, so be it. This president hasn’t accomplished anything of significance with North Korea, so he invented a success story: he prevented a war.

On a related note, Trump could also use some kind of rationalization that puts his entire North Korea gambit in a favorable light, especially with another summit with Kim Jong-un coming up. The reality – Trump inherited a longstanding challenge, went out of his way to make it much worse, then eased tensions by giving a communist dictator what he wanted in exchange for nothing – isn’t exactly impressive.

But if he can convince people he managed to steer the countries away from the brink, then the hapless diplomatic gambit might appear less pointless.

Finally, there’s the broader concern over Trump peddling bogus claims about matters of war and peace.

George Conway, a prominent lawyer who happens to be married to one of the president’s top aides, wrote via Twitter over the weekend, “We should highly question the mental stability of a president of the United States who would lie about whether the United States had been on the verge of starting ‘World War III’ with another state possessing nuclear weapons.”

Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Foreign Policy and North Korea

The war with North Korea that Trump thinks he prevented (but didn't)

Updated