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White House fears Trump may get 'outfoxed' in North Korea talks

U.S. officials are worried what the unprepared American president might give away to North Korea in exchange for nothing. They're right to be concerned.
Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Donald Trump
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...

During the months-long Republican effort to tear down the Affordable Care Act, at no point did Donald Trump ever sit down for talks with congressional Democrats. This was neither an accident nor an oversight. As regular readers may recall, it was an open secret that Republicans were terrified of the prospect of the president negotiating directly with Democratic leaders.

The fear, of course, was that the amateur president would sit down Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he'd find their pitch compelling, and Trump would end up giving Dems everything they asked for.

Similarly, about a year ago, White House officials balked at allowing Trump to hold private negotiations with proponents of a bipartisan immigration reform measure. Again, people close to the president, realizing that he didn't know anything about the subject matter, and acknowledging the reality that the president was more interested in striking a deal than what the deal entailed, took great pains to prohibit one-on-one talks.

The likelihood of Trump being "tricked" into endorsing a good proposal was simply too high.

As the Republican president gets ready for another meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, those fears have risen anew. Politico reported the other day that White House officials believe it's possible Trump will be "outfoxed" into giving away too much in Hanoi.

[Several] of the president's top advisers] have expressed trepidation not only that the summit ... may not yield big results. They worry, too, that Trump, eager to declare victory on the world stage, could make big concessions in exchange for empty promises of denuclearization.The push for a second summit came almost entirely from the president himself, according to current and former White House officials — but Trump remains undeterred. He has gushed about the "wonderful letters" he has received from Kim, as well as the "good rapport" he has developed with the North Korean leader and the enormous media coverage the event in Vietnam's capital is likely to attract. Trump even bragged, in a phone call Tuesday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, that he is the only person who can make progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, according to a person briefed on the conversation, and complained about negative news coverage he has received.

There's an implicit understanding that often goes unstated: everyone seems to quietly realize that Trump doesn't know what he's doing. Worse, he doesn't seem to care about his ignorance or incompetence -- events like these are about "spectacle" -- so the American leader makes no real effort to prepare for meetings such as these.

The Republican president entered the initial round of talks with the North Korean dictator in Singapore with minimal preparation -- Trump went so far as to mock the very idea of doing pre-summit homework -- and soon after, he made a series of concessions to Kim Jong-un in exchange for effectively nothing.

Will this round be any different? During a call with reporters last week, a senior administration official insisted, "The president is doing everything necessary to be well prepared for this summit." Five minutes later, Trump began tweeting about an actor accused of orchestrating an attack against him for publicity. Soon after, he tweeted his support for a GOP senator's re-election bid -- 19 months before voters go to the polls.

The lack of focus didn't inspire confidence.

What's more, there's little doubt that Pyongyang already sees the American leader as a man whose incompetence can be exploited. Bloomberg had a good report on these lines late last week:

"They do look to get President Trump in a room and see what they might get out of him," said Christopher Hill, the North Korea negotiator under President George W. Bush. "If Singapore is any indication, the president seeks to want to negotiate everything himself."Kim and his team seem to be betting on a repeat. A senior Trump administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, said North Korean officials have so far given little away in their meetings with the top U.S. envoy for the talks, Stephen Biegun. The official said the fear is that Kim will make an offer to Trump that sounds good at the moment, inspiring the president to sacrifice something in return that goes too far.

No modern White House had to worry about such things, largely because U.S. officials trusted their boss to be responsible and sensible during delicate negotiations.

In this administration, there's a broad understanding that Donald Trump is ... how do I put this delicately ... different, and that creates an unsettling amount of uncertainty about what the president, desperate for progress, might give away to the dictator he claims to have fallen in love with.