Politics

“None of Them Is Where the President Is”: It’s Trump vs. Trumpworld Over North Korea

In the past few days, as a “tremendously big” and “tremendously wet” hurricane barrelled toward the Carolinas, President Trump cancelled much of his already sparse public schedule. Instead, he appeared to be spending his time stewing in the White House over an accumulating pile of bad news, including a spate of polls showing his approval rating sinking into the thirties and a hardening conventional wisdom that the midterm elections this fall will go against his party. The release, on Tuesday, of the journalist Bob Woodward’s book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” a chronicle of the Trump Administration’s dysfunction, has left the President hate-tweeting about the author and wondering if he can trust those around him. The book, meanwhile, sold a record seven hundred and fifty thousand copies on its first day. By Thursday, Trump was even accusing Democrats of fabricating the estimated three thousand deaths in Puerto Rico last year attributed to the devastation of Hurricane Maria, “to make me look bad.”

It appears to be the embattled President against the world these days. There is, however, at least one notable exception: the increasingly warm public words he reserves for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Over the weekend, Trump praised Kim for sending him an encouraging letter, publicly suggesting that he was open to denuclearization by the end of Trump’s first Presidential term, and dispensing with the customary displays of nuclear missiles at a huge parade in Pyongyang celebrating the country’s seventieth anniversary. On Monday, the White House announced that, in response to the “very warm, very positive” note from Kim, Trump was now ordering his staff to plan for a second Trump-Kim summit meeting. “Thank you to Chairman Kim,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “We will both prove everyone wrong!”

But Trump’s faith in the North Korean dictator is not shared by his top advisers. The backstage Trump Administration drama over what to do about North Korea’s nuclear program is a key theme of Woodward’s book, describing how Trump spent 2017 in confrontation mode with North Korea, to the alarm and consternation of advisers who feared that the President could blunder into war. Less than a year later, Trump’s strategy has shifted from confrontation to negotiation, but the divisions over North Korea between the President and his team continue, even though key players have been replaced and the policy itself has changed dramatically. For a Washington now obsessed with understanding the nature of the internal “resistance” to Trump reported by Woodward and amplified in a Times Op-Ed written by an anonymous “senior official in the Trump Administration,” there may be no better case study than the ongoing North Korea disagreement between the unconventional President and those he has hired to advise him.

In recent days, I spoke with a half-dozen former U.S. government officials and Allied diplomats who have been briefed by Trump Administration officials on the state of play with North Korea since Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim. All acknowledged what one called the “frustratingly slow” progress with the post-Singapore discussions, and described a Trump Administration whose top officials remain deeply skeptical of the course being pursued by the President, with even the usual bureaucratic turf battles being subordinated to the shared concern over Trump’s very public embrace of Kim.

Bruce Klingner, who for years served as the C.I.A. branch chief for Korea and is now a regional expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the President’s current strategy “the beatification of Kim Jong Un.” He and other former officials described the hallmarks of Trump-era foreign policy: conflicting signals, a lack of clear information and process, and distrust of allies. “In some respects, there’s more consensus between State and Defense and the N.S.C.”—the National Security Council—“than was true for Bush or Obama or Clinton,” another former official told me. “Their view is that North Korea is not serious about denuclearizing. The President, however, thinks history began when he became President.” The former official said he had personally spoken to most of Trump’s key advisers on North Korea in recent days and that “none of them is where the President is.”

The infighting is not lost on Kim, who now appears to be openly trying to divide Trump from his team, and his government’s statements have increasingly started to accuse Trump advisers, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Trump has designated as his lead negotiator, of trying to “thwart” Trump’s wishes. “Kim watches us as much as we watch him and, unfortunately for us, this Presidency is wide open,” Jung Pak, the C.I.A.’s former lead Kim analyst, who left the agency for the Brookings Institution last summer amid Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric, told me. “North Korea has gleaned a lot about this Presidency and the policy dysfunction.” Or, as another former official told me, “They are playing Trump against his own people.”

The disarray and chaos described in Woodward’s book are not in the past; they remain the current reality of the Trump Administration. On Monday, for example, Trump had the White House announce both the news of his planned second summit with the North Korean leader and the likely cancellation of a planned Presidential visit to Ireland. Both announcements were a surprise to many who would normally be consulted. “When I met people in the State Department, they were still not aware of what was going on,” one diplomat told me, two days later. In the case of the Ireland visit, officials were initially taken aback by the news of Trump’s plans for the trip, an add-on to a visit to France planned for November that they suspected was an excuse for Trump to visit his golf course in the country. They were surprised once again on Monday by Trump’s apparent decision to cancel it. Both decisions came without any of the standard consultations. On Tuesday, a day after the White House announcement, several top White House officials told the Irish government that they still did not know what had happened. In the protocol-laden world of Presidential trips during past Administrations, such a move would have been unthinkable. “It’s an incredible way to run a railroad, really,” a source familiar with the back-and-forth told me.

On the same day that the White House announced Trump’s plans for a second summit with Kim, NBC published a story quoting an internal U.S. government intelligence assessment that North Korea, rather than showing signs of dismantling its nuclear program since Singapore, remains on track to produce as many nuclear weapons this year as before the summit. (The current estimate, NBC said, is “five to eight” nuclear weapons; the estimate before the summit was six.) Pompeo, the report quoted two sources as confirming, “went into talks with North Korea deeply skeptical that the effort would work, and the process has since only solidified his belief that it won’t.” Those I spoke with all agreed that NBC’s reporting was accurate, and added additional details. Pompeo told one group that there was “a one-in-a-hundred chance this will work,” a former official who has spoken with Pompeo about North Korea told me. Another former official said that Pompeo had tried before Trump’s Singapore summit to secure concessions from North Korea that would produce a better outcome for the President, such as North Korea turning over some of its fissile material, but that Trump proceeded all the same even when that didn’t happen.

Pompeo and his State Department aides are in the nearly impossible position of trying to negotiate on behalf of a President who thinks nothing of publicly undercutting them. After Singapore, Trump issued a tweet proclaiming a complete victory and saying the “threat” from North Korean nuclear weapons that can reach the United States was no more. But there was no official agreement reached for North Korea to give up any weapons, and Pompeo’s subsequent talks with the North Koreans went badly enough that Trump ordered him not to go on a scheduled follow-up visit to Pyongyang a couple of weeks ago, a day after Pompeo announced the appointment of the former Bush Administration official Steve Biegun as a special envoy for North Korea. “Pompeo is trying to negotiate things the President already says he’s gotten,” Victor Cha, a former senior National Security Council official who handled North Korea for President George W. Bush, and who was initially tapped as Trump’s Ambassador to South Korea but had his name withdrawn before he was ever formally nominated, said. “He’s trying to do what the President wants. . . . How do you square this circle?”

The South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, is scheduled to meet next week with Kim. Like Trump, he has become a strong advocate of engagement with the North Koreans, and he has been pushing the Trump team to agree to his plan to make a “declaration” of peace in the never-officially-ended Korean War. But all the U.S. experts I spoke with said the Trump team is wary of this approach. There’s a chance that North Korea will demand such a concession from the U.S. without making any firm commitments on denuclearization, and Trump may see a peace declaration as a first step toward being able to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula.

It’s hard to characterize what is going on behind the scenes with Trump and his team: Is this really “resistance,” or the more routine push-and-pull that happens between any President and his advisers? Pompeo and others senior aides may be skeptical of Trump’s course on the North Korea talks, but they have not given up on trying to produce a positive outcome. Biegun, for example, told a former U.S. official, “Essentially, the President’s crazy-ass style got us in a position where we might actually have an opportunity, so let’s try. I don’t know if it will work, but let’s try.” Another former official described a nearly identical conversation with Biegun, who did not respond to a request for comment. It was clear from Day One what a tough job he would have: a day after Pompeo announced Biegun’s appointment, Trump ordered Pompeo to cancel his trip to North Korea, which may be exactly the outcome that the skeptical Secretary of State wanted. “Pompeo wanted to be ordered not to do it,” the former official said. “Pompeo is pretty smart about how to manage Trump.”

On Monday afternoon, as top advisers continued to try to assuage the President’s concerns about the disloyalty of those surrounding him, I was struck by a Pompeo move that seemed to have nothing to do with North Korea: a random tweet from his official State Department account advertising his new Instagram feed, complete with a hokey picture of the State Department’s seal, rebranded as the “Department of Swagger.” In a photo collage on the Instagram page, Pompeo showed an image of himself, along with one of Shakespeare and one of the famously combative General George S. Patton. “Shakespeare was the first to use ‘swagger.’ Gen. Patton had his swagger stick. At @statedept, we’ve got some #swagger too,” Pompeo wrote. “It’s our confidence in America’s values.”

Just who was Pompeo trying to convince with his cringeworthy social-media campaign? It’s hard to imagine the public was really his target (and indeed, by the end of the week, his Instagram account had not attracted five thousand followers). Nor could it have been the beleaguered diplomats of the State Department, who have spent the twenty months under the Trump Administration facing massive budget cuts, hiring freezes, a mass exodus of senior career officials, and a barrage of insults and contradictory instructions from perhaps the least diplomatic President in American history. “Swagger,” as the critics quickly pointed out, is pretty much the opposite of diplomacy.

The inclusion of the Patton photo, it seemed to me, offered the real answer. The blustery general was no one’s idea of a diplomat, but he has been something of an obsession for President Trump, who often cited Patton as his model for leadership on the campaign trail and has reportedly watched the hagiographic film “Patton” multiple times. Pompeo seems eager to accommodate himself to the President more successfully than his fired predecessor, regardless of their policy differences or his own skepticism. In the Trump Presidency, foreign policy is all about an audience of one.


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