In August, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson encouraged North Korea to participate in "a dialog" with the United States, Donald Trump cut off his chief diplomat at the knees. "The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years," the president declared via Twitter. "Talking is not the answer!"
In October, it happened again. As Tillerson spoke about seeking a diplomatic solution with North Korea, Trump announced that his cabinet secretary was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man."
It's against this backdrop that the president hosted a press conference on Saturday, which featured this striking exchange:
QUESTION: Just to follow up on the conversations between North Korea and South Korea, are you willing to engage in phone talks with Kim Jong-un right now?TRUMP: Sure. I always believe in talking.QUESTION: Do you think that that would be helpful?TRUMP: But we have a very firm stance. Look, our stance -- you know what it is. We're very firm. But I would be -- absolutely I would do that. No problem with that at all.
It's been quite a rhetorical journey for the American president. Trump announced in May that he'd be "honored" to talk to the North Korean dictator "under the right circumstances." Soon after, Trump announced that talking to North Korea is "not the answer."
And now he's apparently come full circle, announcing that he "always" believes in talking and would have "no problem" engaging in talks with Kim Jong-un.
It fell to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to argue yesterday that the competing presidential postures are entirely consistent and that there's been no "turnaround" on Trump's position.
I find myself thinking about this Politico piece from a couple of months ago, about North Korea's confusion about the U.S. administration.
"They want to know if he's crazy," said Suzanne DiMaggio, "or if this is just an act.""They" is North Korean officials. And "he" is Donald Trump. Four times over the past year, in Geneva, Pyongyang, Oslo and Moscow, DiMaggio has secretly met with North Koreans to talk about the country's nuclear program. But what they really want to talk about, DiMaggio said in an extensive new interview for The Global Politico, is America's volatile president.
Among other things, North Korean officials have reportedly asked why the American president and secretary of state seem to disagree so often, why Trump takes turns praising and insulting Kim Jong-un, and why North Korea would negotiate with the United States if Trump no longer believes in honoring diplomatic agreements.
Under the circumstances, I don't imagine North Korean officials are the only ones asking these questions.