Donald Trump snared headlines across the world by announcing yesterday he would meet with North Korea, breaking with years of American policy that held such a meeting could only happen if North Korea made concessions on its nuclear program first. It turns out Trump’s foreign policy masterstroke did not come as the result of a Metternichtian calculation but instead a completely spontaneous outburst.
South Korean official Chung Eui-yong was in the White House yesterday meeting with other officials. Trump decided to see Chung right away; maybe Fox News was in repeats or something. Trump “then asked Mr. Chung to tell him about his meeting with Mr. Kim,” reports the New York Times. “When Mr. Chung said that the North Korean leader had expressed a desire to meet Mr. Trump, the president immediately said he would do it, and directed Mr. Chung to announce it to the White House press corps.”
It sounds from this account that Trump had no real idea that North Korea has always wanted a face-to-face meeting with the U.S. president, and the U.S. has always imposed conditions. That would certainly be the logical interpretation of this account, given that, in the last week, Trump has confused North Korea with the other, extremely different South Korea, and demanded a laughably tiny $1 billion trade concession from China when he was supposed to demand $100 billion. It certainly appears Trump believed, in the moment, that North Korea had not been interested in a meeting until then, so he needed to take the deal before they changed their mind. Whatever. Art of the Deal.
So then the administration rushed out its breakthrough announcement. But now the administration has to slowly back away without quite acknowledging it is doing so. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters today Trump won’t meet with North Korea unless they offer concrete concessions beforehand:
Of course, that’s the old policy. Which means Trump shot off his mouth and got excited and then his advisers had to explain to him why he can’t do that. Or maybe they haven’t explained it to him and are backing out without his permission. Whatever the explanation, the major policy change Trump announced appears to be completely moot because he plays the president on television but isn’t really president.