President Donald Trump returned to his real estate deal-making playbook on Thursday when he abruptly canceled his summit with North Korea’s leader and demanded that Kim Jong Un personally step in to keep the talks on track. The move showed that Trump was increasingly concerned that Kim might have the upper hand in the lead up to the highly anticipated June 12 meeting in Singapore, and that the U.S. had lost control of the planning process.
For several days, Kim’s government had stopped returning requests from U.S. negotiators to discuss the summit, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers on Thursday. In the meantime, North Korean officials had released statements taking a harder line against denuclearization calling “stupid” and “ignorant” a comparison made by Vice President Mike Pence comparing talks with North Korea to Libya’s nuclear disarmament. Pence is not one to improvise his remarks, making the pronouncement all the more troubling for the North Koreans. (The Vice President’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, a senior White House official shed more light on what happened. According to the official, North Korea had promised the U.S. a meeting in Singapore last week to work out logistics for the June 12 summit. The Trump Administration sent representatives, but North Korea never showed. “They simply stood us up,” the official said. The official also said that North Korea had promised that international leaders and nuclear experts would be invited to witness today’s demolition of the nuclear test site; instead they only invited journalists. And the official said the U.S. was worried when North Korea objected to a routine annual joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea. “There has been a trail of broken promises that gave the United States pause,” he said.
Trump had railed to his staff in recent days about the comments coming out of North Korea, but was repeatedly assured they came from mid-level officials and did not seem designed to derail the talks, according to a White House official. But alarm bells for were going off for Trump, who has often said that a negotiator must be willing to walk away to avoid looking desperate for a deal.
Trump worried that his side was increasingly looking like it wanted the meeting more than Pyongyang, the official said. News stories showed the White House had minted commemorative coins for the Singapore summit, Trump himself had said “everyone thinks” he should win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and Trump Administration staff were setting aside hotel rooms in Singapore for the formalities.
Trump abruptly decided to cancel the meeting Thursday morning — in much the same way he had accepted Kim’s offer — with little consultation with his staff, American lawmakers or allies.
“Sadly, based on the tremendous anger displayed in your most recent statement,” Trump wrote to Kim. “I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting.”
The White House official said that Trump met with Pence, Pompeo, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Adviser John Bolton and others Thursday morning, and after considering his decision, Trump “dictated every word of the letter himself.”
But even as Trump spiked the meeting, he left the door open for Kim to make an overture. In the letter, Trump went out of his way to say he felt a “wonderful dialogue” was building between the two leaders and that he appreciated the “beautiful gesture” Kim made in releasing three American prisoners. “It’s possible that the existing summit could take place, or a summit at some later date. Nobody should be anxious. We have to get it right, ” Trump told reporters in the White House later in the day, adding that “if and when” Kim wants to talk: “I am waiting.”
The news reportedly prompted South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in to call a late night meeting in the presidential mansion in Seoul as news broke that the summit was off. Just two days before, as Moon sat next to him in the Oval Office, Trump said he was prepared to guarantee the security of North Korea’s dictator and provide economic support. Trump was also willing to do something North Korean leaders had wanted for decades: to meet with an American president as an equal power. Trump is now betting that Kim wants that symbolic face-to-face badly enough to make the next move.
North Korea “needs this summit more than the US — make no mistake of that,” Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow, who also hosts a conservative talk radio show, wrote on Twitter. Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter that he didn’t see Trump’s cancellation at the end of talks, but instead, said it was “about maneuvering, lack of predictability and leverage.”
David Pressman, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs, now a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner, dismissed that Trump was following a well-thought out negotiation strategy. He said Kim “desperately” wants “the credibility and legitimacy that comes with” meeting an American commander-in-chief, but added that “President Trump is winging it. There is no plan. There is no strategy. There is no grand chess game of ‘out-crazying’ our adversary. There is just dizzying lack of coordination, and a fetishistic obsession with symbols coupled with little interest in details,” Pressman told TIME in an email.
Even as Trump sent overtures to Kim, he held out the possibility of U.S. military action, writing in his letter to Kim that the U.S. nuclear capability is “massive and powerful.” In a briefing with reporters later in the day, Pentagon spokesman Dana White said the U.S. military stands by its motto to be ready to “fight tonight” on the Korean peninsula against North Korean aggression.
Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., director of the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, added that the 28,000 American troops in South Korea, along with the array of missile defense systems in the region, would be prepared to “respond quickly” should Pyongyang ever launch an offensive. “They’ve proven to be unpredictable in the past,” he said, regarding the North Korean military. McKenzie added that although there was “visible destruction to the entrances of the tunnels” to North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, no final assessment had been made on the capability to restart it.
Congressional leaders were caught largely off-balance by the announcement and scrambled to discern whether the meeting was actually canceled, or if the President’s letter was merely a negotiating ploy. Conservative media outlets such as Fox News suggested Trump was using a page from his best-selling advice book, “The Art of the Deal.” “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it,” Trump wrote in his 1987 best-seller. “That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.”
Lawmakers who phoned the White House for guidance were told the President’s letter spoke for itself.
Trump allies outside government suggested the President would rejoin the meetings in short order. They pointed to the President’s letter, which seemed he was deeply disappointed and seemed to beg for North Korea to call him, and a tweet that said he “sadly” had to walk away.
Trump’s about-face put his Republican loyalists in something of a bind. Many of the longtime critics of attempts to negotiate away nuclear weapons had made peace with Trump’s belief that he could talk North Korea into de-nuclearizing. Some had even taken up the unofficial campaign that Trump should win a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing the parties to the table.
Then, the talks appeared to collapse and those same lawmakers forced themselves to praise Trump for walking away from them. It was merely the largest reminder of the indignities that President subjects his nominal allies to.
Privately, some Republicans were trying to read the tea leaves for what the exit — at least for now — means for White House power. Pompeo had been taking the lead on talks with North Korea, including high-profile meetings. He had an ally in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
But Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, was seen a major critic of the diplomatic efforts and was pushing a hawkish line of attack. Trump’s letter indicates Bolton’s worldview was prevailing, and Pompeo’s scheduled testimony in the Senate’s foreign policy panel began awkwardly with the nation’s top diplomat reading Trump’s surprise letter. The session about the State Department’s budget had little to do with dollars and cents.
“North Korea has a long history of demanding concessions merely to negotiate,” said Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. “While past administrations of both parties have fallen for this ruse, I commend the president for seeing through Kim Jong Un’s fraud.”
– With reporting by Tessa Berenson, Philip Elliott and Nash Jenkins in Washington