At 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, I was speaking with a senior Administration official involved in the preparations for President Trump’s summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. The chances, the official told me, were still “seventy-thirty” that the summit would happen, in Singapore, on June 12th, despite increasingly jittery statements from both sides in recent days. By the time we talked again, after dinner, however, the prospects seemed to be dropping by the minute. The North Koreans had released a new statement in the hour since we had first spoken, calling remarks by Vice-President Mike Pence “ignorant and stupid” and threatening to cancel the meeting and, instead, proceed with a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” “I saw that,” the official said, referring to the bellicose new statement. “Well, maybe it’s down to sixty-forty, but the point is we are planning for it.”
Already, though, it was clear that the summit, which so recently had Trump openly musing about his prospects for a Nobel Peace Prize, was in serious doubt, and the official repeatedly returned to the question of the blame game that could ensue if the talks collapsed. He had been reviewing the long history of unsuccessful nuclear negotiations with North Korea, spanning three generations of the Kim family, and had concluded that, no matter what the facts, there was always an aggressive fight to affix responsibility. “Whenever talks have failed with North Korea,” the Administration official observed, “it’s been because of North Korea.”
On Thursday morning, Trump called off the summit, writing in a testy letter to Kim that he was cancelling the meeting, “based on the tremendous anger and hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” The blame game, it seemed, had already begun.
Even before the collapse of the North Korea negotiations, it was clear that this week was not going to do much for Trump’s vaunted self-image as a dealmaker. Not only were the prospects for the Kim meeting in doubt, there were setbacks regarding Trump’s two other top priorities: China and Iran.
On Monday morning, after a weekend of negotiations with China, Trump appeared to be abruptly backing off his threat to launch a trade war with Beijing, without winning any major concessions. “It’s absolutely stunning how we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a huge proponent of Trump’s earlier strategy of confrontation, told the Times. “Sadly China is out-negotiating the administration & winning the trade talks right now,” the Republican Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, a free-trader whose views are generally the opposite of Bannon’s, tweeted on Tuesday. By Wednesday evening, Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, and his Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, rushed up to the Capitol for an emergency session with a half-dozen unhappy Republican senators. The attendees were mad at Trump, but for different reasons than Bannon. They pressed for an explanation as to why, exactly, Trump seemed to be granting concessions to a Chinese telecom company, ZTE, that has been crippled by U.S. sanctions that prevent it from buying American components. The answer appeared to be a personal, direct request to Trump from the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, amid the broader talks over Trump’s threat of sweeping trade tariffs. That explanation, though, failed to appease the senators. An attendee at the meeting told me later that he anticipated there could be more than seventy votes in the Senate to block Trump legislatively on the matter. This is not generally what winning looks like. [Continue reading…]