White House unexpectedly hedges on North Korea meeting

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds the daily briefing at the White House, September 12, 2017.

The news from the White House last night was, if nothing else, historic. North Korea's Kim Jong-un extended an invitation for face-to-face negotiations with Donald Trump and the American president has accepted the offer.

Indeed, Trump's decision was apparently quite impulsive. The New York Times reported that events unfolded "haphazardly," with the American president summoning South Korea's Chung Eui-yong for an unscheduled meeting. When Chung mentioned Kim Jong-un's desire to meet Trump, the president "immediately said he would do it, and directed Mr. Chung to announce it to the White House press corps." This, despite Trump administration officials earlier this week dismissing North Korea's offer of direct talks "in scathing terms."

But was the president's decision so impulsive that it was incorrect? Consider what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters this afternoon:

"The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea."

Well, compared to what we were told less than 24 hours ago, that's ... different.

I realize that on Team Trump, it's not uncommon for officials, including the president, to announce a position, only to then announce an entirely different position a day later, but this is starting to look like a rather dramatic example of the phenomenon.

Sensitive diplomatic discussions with a rogue nuclear state are complicated, but the underlying question here is not: did Trump accept the invitation for talks with Kim Jong-un? Is the meeting preconditioned on "concrete steps and concrete actions"? Maybe Sanders was referring to a halt in North Korea weapons testing in the lead up to the meeting?

In case the White House's posture weren't quite confusing enough, an administration official told the Wall Street Journal this afternoon, after Sanders' comments, "The invitation has been extended and accepted, and that stands."

And that suggests Trump will, in fact, have the meeting, despite the press secretary's assertion today that the president "will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions."

Last night, the meeting was a done deal. Today, it's hard to know what to think, exactly. Those looking for evidence that Trump's fine-tuned machine knows exactly what it's doing should probably look elsewhere.

Postscript: Sanders also said today that the Trump administration "has made zero concessions." That's plainly untrue: the president agreed to meet in person with a nuclear-armed dictator, which is exactly what the dictator has long wanted, and which, practically by definition, is a major U.S. concession.