After Donald Trump’s first round of talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, the American president returned home from Singapore claiming victory. The bluster quickly proved hollow: the two leaders signed a joint statement that did effectively nothing. Trump struggled to understand this, but there was very little to celebrate.
Eight months later, however, the Republican returns home with even less.
President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un abruptly broke off their nuclear summit here Thursday, canceling a planned signing ceremony.
“Sometimes you have to walk and I think that was one of these times,” Trump said at a press conference that was moved forward by almost two hours after the talks collapsed.
I think “collapsed” is both accurate and important. Often, during difficult diplomatic negotiations, the parties will agree to additional discussions, if nothing else. The point is to maintain a dialog, working incrementally toward a goal. We’ll often see leaders shake hands, feign optimism about future talks, and sign a vague communique with symbolic gestures for the cameras. If nothing else, it helps the diplomats save face.
That’s not what happened in Hanoi, where talks ended abruptly and prematurely. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters the administration would continue to work toward a possible agreement “in the weeks ahead,” but that doesn’t change the fact that Trump and his team are returning to the White House empty handed.
The American president, facing scandal and tumult at home, likely thought he could score some kind of victory with his dictatorial pal in Pyongyang, which in turn would give him some bragging rights and positive headlines. But Kim asked for an end to U.S. sanctions; Trump couldn’t make that kind of concession; and so the Republican left with nothing.
In fact, in some ways, it’s worse than nothing.
Kim Jong-un received the international spotlight, gushing praise from the leader of the free world, and the validation that comes with being treated as a legitimate power by the United States. When a summit ends with satisfied party, and it’s not you, you’ve lost.
Trying to lower expectations, Trump told the nation’s governors this week he’d be satisfied if North Korea simply continued with its current pause on weapons testing. Except there’s not even an agreement on that issue – and in theory, Kim could begin a new round of tests in the hopes of pushing the White House back to the table.
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias joked this morning, “It turns out that sending a distracted president with a weak command of the underlying issues into a hastily arranged summit without proper preparation wasn’t a diplomatic masterstroke after all.”