White House aides have been leaking word for several weeks that Donald Trump refuses to get prepared for next week's summit with North Korea's Jim Jong-un, and I've assumed the president would soon denounce the reports as "fake news."
In a bit of a surprise, he did the opposite this afternoon. Not only did Trump effectively confirm the accounts, he also explained why he doesn't see the point in doing his homework:
"I think I'm very well prepared. I don't think I have to prepare very much. It's about attitude, it's about willingness to get things done, but I think I've been preparing for this summit for a long time, as has the other side, I think they've been preparing for a long time also. So, this isn't a question of preparation, it's a question of whether or not people want it to happen, and we'll know that very quickly."
Just so we're clear, when he says, "I'm very well prepared," followed immediately by, "I don't think I have to prepare," Trump doesn't see that as a contradiction. What the president seems to be arguing is that he doesn't see the point in doing substantive policy work because he already has an innate understanding of negotiating.
In other words, when Trump says, "I've been preparing for this summit for a long time," he's not being literal. He means that he's been engaged in private-sector deal-making for many years, which in his mind, has necessarily prepared him for bilateral diplomacy with a nuclear-armed dictator. (This might be more persuasive if he weren't so spectacularly bad at making deals.)
It's why Trump added that he doesn't "have to prepare." If the summit is about "attitude," and he already has more attitude than he knows what to do with, he'll leave the briefing books and policy details to the eggheads.
But as jarring as it was to see the president -- any president, really -- dismiss the importance of policy preparation, this isn't just a point-and-laugh-at-the-foolish-president moment.
The New York Times published a report a couple of weeks ago that's relevant anew.
[White House aides are] concerned about what kind of grasp Mr. Trump has on the details of the North Korea program, and what he must insist upon as the key components of denuclearization. [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] and his aides reported that [Kim Jong-un] seemed highly conversant with all elements of the program when the two men met, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made similar comments about Mr. Kim, based on his two meetings with him in Pyongyang, the North's capital.But aides who have recently left the administration say Mr. Trump has resisted the kind of detailed briefings about enrichment capabilities, plutonium reprocessing, nuclear weapons production and missile programs that Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush regularly sat through.
As we discussed earlier, the substantive implications of this are real. Because Trump is comfortable with his ignorance, and he's convinced himself that negotiating with a nuclear-armed dictator is about "attitude," the North Korean leader will be in a position to exploit the American amateur's lack of preparation.
Kim can, and probably will, present bad offers that Trump won't recognize as weak. It's increasingly easy to imagine the Republican embracing the terms of an agreement he doesn't understand -- if it's more than a page, would he even read it? -- in part out of desperation to score some kind of political victory, and in part because he won't know the difference between a good deal and a bad one.
"This isn't a question of preparation," Trump said, failing to understand that this is most definitely a question of preparation.