Framing the Improbable

Put it one way or put it another. He’s not old and fat. He’s a man of experience and substance. He’s not pathetically childish. He’s refreshingly childlike, not jaded and ruined by everyone else’s limited conventional thinking. He’s not incompetent and unqualified and knows nothing. Well, maybe he is, but he’ll bring fresh eyes to any problem and do what no one has been able to do. And he’s not a stubborn bully. He’s not really mean to people. Or if he is nasty and vindictive, and sneers a lot, he has his reasons. He’s a man of solid conviction. He has his values. They will never change. That’s admirable. And so on and so forth.

Anything can be explained. Frame it the right way. Republicans have been doing that for years. The Estate Tax, which applies to a few hundred very wealthy families, was the Death Tax – and taxing the families of the recently dead seems so very unfair. The people spoke. This has nothing to do with them, but the public spoke. The Estate Tax is pretty much gone now. These few hundred very wealthy families are off the hook. Everyone else will have to make up for the lost revenue or accept deep cuts to government services of all sorts. That worked.

Now the problem is how to frame what just happened at that summit with North Korea, and the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and David Nakamura frame that problem:

An ebullient President Trump flew home Tuesday with what he called a “very, very comprehensive” agreement with North Korea, even as lawmakers, analysts and allies congratulated the effort but questioned the substance of what had been achieved.

Those questions were justified:

The brief document signed by Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un provided virtually no detail beyond a stated commitment to “denuclearize” the Korean Peninsula, a promise that Pyongyang has made and ignored many times in the past.

At a news conference in Singapore after nearly five hours of talks there with Kim, Trump said he “knows for a fact” that North Korea means it this time and that Kim “wants to do the right thing.” The work of putting meat on the bare bones of the agreement will begin quickly, he said, and “once you start the process, it means it’s pretty much over.”

That which Trump “knows for a fact” has always been a bit dicey – there are running lists of his almost hourly “lies” – which, charitably, may not be “lies” at all. He really does believe what just isn’t so, but others will clean this up, even if there’s nothing to work with:

Talks are to be led on the U.S. side by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, according to the agreement, a “relevant, high level” North Korean official. But no specifics of a future path were outlined. There was no mention of a declaration of North Korea’s nuclear assets, which normally precedes any arms control negotiation, or of timelines or deadlines.

“To me, it was quite disappointing that we really did not put on paper any way that would test the seriousness of Kim Jong-Un,” said Joseph Yun, who until March served as the administration’s special representative for North Korea policy. “We have to suspend our judgment” until something else happens, he said, but “there is nothing from the meeting to say we’ve achieved anything.”

Everything was vague:

No sanctions will be lifted until denuclearization reaches “a certain point,” Trump said without elaboration. “They’ll come off when we know we’re down the road,” he said.

But Trump said at his news conference that he would cancel U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which he described as “very provocative” – a description often used by North Korea. The announcement appeared to take both Seoul and the Pentagon by surprise. “Our alliances remain ironclad, and ensure peace and stability in the region,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement hours later. The summit, she said, was the “first step along the path to the goal” of denuclearization and peace on the peninsula.

Trump had blindsided the Pentagon but they rolled with it, as did the other folks:

South Korea said it was studying the president’s remarks from the news conference. One of the two annual large-scale exercises between the two took place this spring; the next is scheduled for August.

They don’t know what to do now, and others were doing their own framing:

North Korea’s tightly controlled media hailed the “meeting of the century,” as the official state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, put it, but framed the coverage around the premise that it was Trump who was most eager for the summit. The North’s official KCNA news agency characterized Trump as conceding to Kim’s demands to suspend U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

That didn’t help, and there was this:

There was some discussion of human rights during the meetings – which included a one-on-one between Trump and Kim, an expanded session with senior staff on both sides, and a lunch – Trump said, but they focused primarily on nuclear issues. Neither North Korea’s brutal treatment of its own citizens nor its substantial cyberwar capabilities, nor Japan’s request for a tough line on the abduction of its citizens, was mentioned in their joint statement.

This was just like Obama’s deal with Iran. Deal with the nukes. Get to the other stuff later. That’s what Trump said was the problem with Obama’s deal with Iran, so he tore it up. Now he’s doing the same thing, but of course he’s special:

Unlike decades of previous arms agreements, which usually start with bottom-up negotiations and final deals sealed by leaders, this one began at the top. Trump made clear that his presence, and his self-described dealmaking skills – along with a slick, U.S.-made video depicting Trump and Kim as key to saving the world – were part of the negotiation itself. By forming what he called “a very special bond” with Kim, he said, he would be able to achieve a success that had eluded several presidents before him.

That was how he framed this, but that’s a hard sell:

Lawmakers were largely divided along party lines, with Democrats saying they were all for peace but that Trump may have gotten snookered.

“Thus far, North Korea has already extracted concessions,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement, including Kim’s “long-sought legitimacy and acceptance on the global stage.” But Trump, he said, had “undermined our maximum pressure policy and sanctions. No sooner was the ink dry on the agreement than China stated that ‘adjustments’ were needed to the sanctions.”

Republicans were generally congratulatory, while reminding Trump that Congress must be kept apprised of what the administration is doing and of his promise to submit any final deal for approval.

Republicans were reminding Trump that they could stop this nonsense, and then this happened:

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported Wednesday (local time) that US President Donald Trump agreed to lift sanctions on North Korea, in addition to agreeing to halt military exercises and other security guarantees.

According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, KCNA reported: “Trump expressed his intention to halt the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, which the DPRK side regards as provocation, over a period of good-will dialogue between the DPRK and the U.S., offer security guarantees to the DPRK and lift sanctions against it along with advances in improving the mutual relationship through dialogue and negotiation.”

There was no immediate comment or confirmation from the White House.

Trump thought that Justin Trudeau had stabbed him in the back. Trudeau didn’t. Kim did, but Trump does know what’s going on here – “I may be wrong, I mean I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.”

He trusts Kim. Everyone should. If it turns out he was wrong he’ll blame Obama or Hillary, or someone. And then he winked at the press.

But he’s all-in on this, as Jacob Pramuk notes here:

President Donald Trump praised Kim Jong-Un repeatedly following their nuclear summit Tuesday, a sharp reversal from when he publicly eviscerated the North Korean regime for human rights abuses last year… Trump pulled back from criticizing Kim as he did during a speech before the United Nations last year. The communist dictatorship has been condemned worldwide for the political prisons, assassinations and starvation in the country. The president’s comments and face-to-face meeting with Kim have sparked criticism that he could legitimize or embolden North Korea’s regime.

“I learned he’s a very talented man. I also learned that he loves his country very much,” the president said Tuesday when asked what he took away from meeting Kim. In a separate interview with ABC News, he said the North Korean people have a “great fervor” for Kim – something North Koreans often have to show or face punishment.

That didn’t bother him:

Pressed during a news conference about North Korea’s brutal rule, including the killings of Kim’s uncle and half-brother and the malnutrition of its people, Trump reiterated that he thinks the 34-year-old dictator is “talented.”

“Well he is very talented. Anybody who takes over a situation like he did at 26 years of age and is able to run it, and run it tough – I don’t say ‘he was nice’ or I don’t say anything about it,” Trump said.

Trump further told Voice of America that Kim has been a “rough guy,” but called the dictator a “smart” man who “loves his people.” When pressed about how Kim could love his people based on his rule, Trump responded that “he’s doing what he’s seen done.”

Trump shrugged – things have been that way over there for years – and Kim was doing his best – and Trump said he’s fixing that:

Trump also stressed that he believes he has “helped” the estimated 120,000 people in North Korean prison camps by starting the process of potentially normalizing relations with Pyongyang. Trump said there’s “not much the president can do right now” about the prisons but he hopes Kim will address it “at a certain point.”

Responding to another question about human rights abuses, Trump said “it’s a rough situation over there.” He added that “it’s rough in a lot of places, by the way.”

In short, these things happen, and there was this:

Trump’s comments Tuesday were a far cry from his speech to the U.N. in September. During a speech in which he said, “Rocket Man” Kim “is on a suicide mission,” he slammed the regime’s practices.

“No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea,” Trump said at the time. “It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing and oppression of countless more.”

In September, he also called out North Korea for “deadly abuse” of Otto Warmbier. The American student died last year shortly after returning to the U.S. from extended detention in North Korea.

Trump said Tuesday that Warmbier “did not die in vain” and “had a lot to do with us being here today.”

That’s odd framing, but he did say that North Korea’s impoverished economy, the result of years of mismanagement and international sanctions, has a lot of potential:

As an example they have great beaches. You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said, boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo? And I explained, I said, you know, instead of doing that you could have the best hotels in the world right there. Think of it from a real estate perspective. You have South Korea, you have China, and they own the land in the middle. How bad is that, right? It’s great.

That’s bringing fresh eyes to things – a whole new frame of reference – but Dana Milbank remembers this:

In 2007, then-Sen. Obama answered in the affirmative when asked if he would be willing to meet without precondition the leaders of repressive regimes, including North Korea’s, “to bridge the gap that divides our countries.”

His presidential opponent John McCain and other Republicans hit Obama near daily for what they deemed “inexperience and reckless judgment.” (Hillary Clinton gave him grief, too.) Later, Sarah Palin, specifically mentioning North Korea, proclaimed the Obama doctrine was “coddling enemies and alienating allies.” Mitt Romney mocked Obama for saying he was going to “engage North Korea.”

Republican lawmakers criticized the Obama administration for having a ­”buddy-buddy” relationship with Iran, Sen. McCain (Ariz.) likened Obama’s handshake with Cuba’s Raúl Castro to Neville Chamberlain’s handshake with Adolf Hitler, and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) condemned Obama for meeting Castro while there were “political prisoners languishing.”

John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, in 2013 mocked the “fanciful” idea “that we could talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons program.”

The website NowThisNews made a video compilation of Fox News commentators’ thoughts on Obama meeting with repressive regimes. Among them: “Obama likes talking to dictators” (Mike Huckabee), “he would meet with some of these madmen without any preconditions” (Palin), “Obama is bowing and scraping before dictators” (Dana Loesch), Obama is “going to reach out to these crazy people around the world” (Steve Doocy).

That’s not the current framing:

Fox personalities dutifully praised a “stunning Donald Trump breakthrough” and a “stunning diplomatic triumph.” Sean Hannity, who said in 2008 that Obama’s inclination to meet with rogues was “one of the most disturbing displays” of inexperience, said this year that Trump’s willingness to meet Kim Jong-Un “is a huge foreign policy win.”

As Trump and Kim shook hands for the first time Tuesday night, Hannity proclaimed it “officially” historic, compared Trump to Ronald Reagan, called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a “rock star” and hosted Trump loyalists proclaiming “peace and progress” and “peace and prosperity.” He dismissed “artificial unrealistic expectations” of Trump’s opponents – that is, the complete denuclearization Trump himself demanded.

Yeah, well, things are different now, but Milbank sees this:

What Trump has gotten, at least so far, is far flimsier than the Iran nuclear deal he tore up. Trump, in his news conference after the talks, admitted that his joint statement with Kim does not deal with “verifiable or irreversible denuclearization,” said human rights were discussed only “relatively briefly,” and hemmed and hawed when asked what North Korea gave in return for his concession calling off “war games” with South Korea: “Well, we’ve got, you know, I’ve heard that, I mean, some of the people that – I don’t know…”

He had run out of ways to frame this, and Milbank adds this:

Democrats – were they inclined to be demagogic – could have attacked Trump for sitting down with a murderous dictator. Most didn’t. Though critical of Trump’s deference to Kim and the meeting’s lack of substance, they generally didn’t criticize the idea of meeting.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) reflected the tone of many Democrats when he said “we remain supportive of American diplomatic efforts,” while noting that if a Democratic president did what Trump did, “the entire Republican Party would be shouting grave warnings about the end of American leadership and the belittling of our country.”

At least some Democrats retain enough integrity not to dismiss diplomacy just because it is being attempted by their opponent.

Integrity, however, is not successful framing. Democrats are not inclined to be demagogic. They’re also terrible at framing. They may not think that’s important.

Donald Trump knows better, as Anne Applebaum notes here:

Legally, his legitimacy is not in doubt. Yet Trump often seems to worry that it is. Elected without a majority, Trump repeatedly claims he has one. With no political, educational or any other qualifications, Trump ascribes to himself almost mystical, intuitive qualities instead. So far, these have failed him. In the complicated, nuanced worlds of economics and security, he has achieved nothing except destruction: of previous agreements, of institutions, and even of an anodyne G7 statement just days ago. But in Singapore, he could achieve something without discussion of complex issues, without any intellectual effort at all: a photograph, a “breakthrough,” the image of the intuitive dealmaker who wants “peace.”

And he did get his shots, and they were really his:

The images coming out of Singapore are important to Trump because he has created them. When meeting with allies, Trump does not control the narrative, nor does he decide what people will see. Indeed, the image that came to symbolize that disastrous, angry G7 meeting was not his own creation: It was taken by a German photographer, and it showed Chancellor Angela Merkel leaning over a table and talking down to the American president, like a parent to a child. In Singapore, by contrast, Trump controlled the optics, even deliberately giving priority to a Singaporean television station rather than the White House pool. He reveled in that ability. “Are you getting a nice photo,” he actually asked the camera operator, “So we look nice and handsome and beautiful and perfect?”

So this was all about framing:

Trump and Kim are two men who survive, in politics, by insisting on their own versions of reality. Both have propaganda machines which will trumpet a great success. Both will be loudly applauded by their respective supporters. Both will gain personally, even if their countries don’t. In that sense, this was indeed, as Trump said, “a really fantastic meeting.”

Kathleen Parker disagrees:

Well, it happened: The president and the dictator met, shook hands, looked each other in the eye, smiled for the cameras – and lied through their teeth. The visuals, we witnessed; the lies we infer – from experience, history and redundant prescience.

Parker is not happy:

It’s true, as you say, Mr. President, that you’ve done what no other would. You’ve traded American authority and legitimized a petty provocateur. For what? For the possibility, as you suggested, of a beachfront hotel overlooking the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan or, in the event of a peaceful reunification with South Korea, the East China Sea?

But for the minor matter of trademarks, Ivanka’s swimsuits are sure to be a hit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to be mistaken. I’m not lobbying for failure, but there’s little reason to believe that Kim will honor Trump’s expectations – or vice versa.

Trump’s job, now, is to frame that. He has been framing the improbable as new and wonderful. Now he has to frame the impossible – but he’ll come up with something. Reality hasn’t stopped him so far.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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