The news is what no one expected – otherwise it wouldn’t be news – or it can be what everyone kind of expected but hoped and prayed would never really happen, and then did happen – like a war or sudden economic collapse. Then the news media does its thing. There are questions that need answers. What the hell just happened? And just why did THAT happen and not something else? And there’s that implicit third question. Is this going to happen again? Is this how things are going to be from now on? There the news media is usually cautious. No one wants to deliver bad news. But sometimes things are broken beyond repair. Things won’t get back to normal, if there ever was such a thing. No one wants to report that.
But sometimes things are broken beyond repair:
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly cut short their two-day summit Thursday, with talks collapsing amid slightly differing accounts of why both leaders walked away without an agreement or a clear plan on how to keep the dialogue alive.
The fundamental disagreements rested on the trade-offs between the United States providing relief from sanctions and North Korea’s steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
The two leaders and their delegations departed the meeting site in Vietnam’s capital without sitting for a planned lunch or participating in a scheduled signing ceremony.
The breakdown raised serious doubts about whether the two sides can keep the diplomatic outreach moving forward.
Trump said the main impediment to a deal was Kim’s requirement that the United States lift all economic sanctions on North Korea in exchange for the closure of only one nuclear facility, which still would have left Pyongyang with a large arsenal of missiles and warheads.
But Trump also raised concerns about North Korea’s concealment of parts of its nuclear industry.
Hours later, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, offered a slightly different take at a rare news conference, arguing that Kim’s regime sought only “partial” sanctions relief in return for dismantling the North’s main enrichment capabilities for fissile material.
Speaking to reporters directly afterward, North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, suggested Kim had “lost the will to engage in dealmaking” as the talks unraveled. The United States, she said, was missing a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and she said no future meetings between the two sides were planned.
And that’s that, except Donald Trump decided he’d try one more time:
President Trump on Thursday defended North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, whose family says he was “brutally tortured” while imprisoned in North Korea and died in 2017 after being flown back to United States in a coma.
The president condemned the “brutality of the North Korean regime” following Warmbier’s death at 22, but he took a softer stance toward Kim at the conclusion of their second summit.
“I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump said. “It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”
Trump would no longer say Kim murdered the kid. Would that be enough to win back Kim’s love and respect for Trump? That seemed to be the plan:
Trump said that he spoke to Kim about the death of Warmbier – whose family has called it a murder – and that Kim “feels badly about it.” He said the North Korea leader – who rules the country with an iron grip – knew about the case but learned about it only after the fact because, Trump suggested, “top leadership” might not have been involved.
“He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I take him at his word,” Trump said.
Will that win Kim back? No one knows, but everyone knows what’s going on here:
Trump’s defense of Kim mirrors his willingness to take the word of autocrats in other cases despite the findings of his own government or experts, particularly when confronting the leader is not what Trump sees as in his political interest.
Trump has not agreed with his intelligence community’s assessment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – who as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia has forged an alliance with the administration – ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.
But that must have been a misunderstanding, one of many:
Trump has repeatedly said that the crown prince has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death while emphasizing his own view that preserving the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia is most important.
“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said of whether Mohammed knew of the plan to kill Khashoggi. The remarks were included in an October news release defending his administration’s handling of the situation.
And Trump has sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his denial that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election – even though the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia did interfere as part of an effort to sow discord and help Trump.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said standing beside the Russian president during a joint news conference in Helsinki in July.
So that’s the way things are. He respects strong leaders. Strong leaders sometimes kill those citizens they find to be a real bother, the way things are now. These things happen. But that’s still news to some folks:
Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, said that Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s denial of responsibility was “reprehensible.”
“He gave cover to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier,” said Santorum on CNN, adding, “I am disappointed, to say the least, that he did it.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted that Trump’s remark was “detestable.”
“Walking away from the summit was better than making a bad deal,” he wrote in a Thursday morning post. “It’s also the result of a poorly planned strategy. But accepting Kim’s denial of involvement in Warmbier’s death? Detestable, and harkens back to Trump’s duplicitous acceptances of denials from other dictators. “
So it does:
Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from Ohio, was detained in Pyongyang after participating in an organized tour in December 2015 and was held for 17 months, after being charged with spying for the United States and being coerced into making an on-camera confession. His parents have stated that all the charges against him were untrue. Warmbier returned to his hometown of Cincinnati in a coma and died a few days later.
Trump said at the time that he was incensed by the death. He forged a relationship with the Warmbier family, even meeting with them in the Oval Office, and introduced them to a rousing ovation at his 2018 State of the Union address.
“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat,” he said, with Warmbier’s tearful family looking on as he described the regime’s grisly actions.
Fred Warmbier accompanied Vice President Pence as part of the U.S. delegation to the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February 2018.
But that’s all over now. The world changed. How did that happen? Samantha Vinograd might know. She’s a CNN National Security Analyst who served on President Obama’s National Security Council and at the Treasury under President Bush, so she knows a few things, and she knows this:
President Donald Trump’s failure to engage in the most basic preparatory work for this summit – and his longstanding penchant for putting personal convictions ahead of his experts’ opinions – meant that there was no way that he could have come out of this summit with a denuclearization deal.
I helped prep President Barack Obama for high-level meetings, and President Trump’s failure to engage in the first step of any presidential meeting prep was a strong indicator that this summit was doomed to fail.
Trump broke the system:
Typically, summit prep begins with the president and his intelligence community agreeing on a baseline assessment of the state-of-play, in this case the status of North Korea’s nuclear program and Kim Jong Un’s intentions. The intelligence community’s assessment that North Korea will not denuclearize, the open-source analysis that Pyongyang is still proliferating weapons of mass destruction, and reporting that North Korea is taking extra steps to disburse its arsenal seemingly fell on deaf ears.
Of course it did:
Because President Trump still thought that denuclearization was possible heading into the Hanoi Summit–based on his own personal assessment (or Putin’s) of Kim Jong-Un’s intentions–his goals for the Summit were out of touch with reality.
The intelligence community assessed that Kim wouldn’t denuclearize, but instead of taking a step back and reassessing what we could realistically get from Kim – a nuclear freeze vs. denuclearization for example—President Trump went into the summit with unachievable goals.
Because he didn’t prepare appropriately and fully understand his counterpart’s intentions in this complex negotiation he pushed for something that none of his intelligence experts thought he would ever get.
He blew that all up, while the other side just did the usual:
It’s clear that President Trump’s counterparts do their homework. They study what makes him tick. It’s no accident that North Korean state media condemned Democrats for “chilling the atmosphere” ahead of the Hanoi Summit or that Kim has consistently flattered President Trump personally. Stoking partisan divisions and flattering the president are two ways to get on his good side.
If the president had done real preparatory work, and listened to his team, he would not have agreed to meet with Kim Jong-Un one-on-one. Kim has tried to play to the president’s personal narcissism – including with love letters—and has put most nuclear negotiations in the leader-to-leader track rather than allowing experts from both sides to have the time and space to negotiate. This isn’t because Kim likes alone time with the president but rather because he knows the president is softest when he’s by himself, without experts and too often without accountability.
Kim sees a broken system he can exploit. He’s right. It really is broken:
President Trump ordered his chief of staff to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance last year, overruling concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer, four people briefed on the matter said.
Mr. Trump’s decision in May so troubled senior administration officials that at least one, the White House chief of staff at the time, John F. Kelly, wrote a contemporaneous internal memo about how he had been “ordered” to give Mr. Kushner the top-secret clearance.
The White House counsel at the time, Donald F. McGahn II, also wrote an internal memo outlining the concerns that had been raised about Mr. Kushner – including by the CIA – and how Mr. McGahn had recommended that he not be given a top-secret clearance.
So the rules were gone, and that was news:
The disclosure of the memos contradicts statements made by the president, who told The New York Times in January in an Oval Office interview that he had no role in his son-in-law receiving his clearance.
Oops. But the guy is dangerous:
It is not known precisely what factors led to the problems with Mr. Kushner’s security clearance. Officials had raised questions about his own and his family’s real estate business’s ties to foreign governments and investors, and about initially unreported contacts he had with foreigners. The issue also generated criticism of Mr. Trump for having two family members serve in official capacities in the West Wing…
The question of Mr. Kushner’s access to intelligence was a flash point almost from the beginning of the administration. The initial background check into Mr. Kushner dragged on for more than a year, creating a distraction for the White House, which struggled to explain why one of the people closest to the president had yet to be given the proper approval to be trusted with the country’s most sensitive information.
The full scope of intelligence officials’ concerns about Mr. Kushner is not known. But the clearance had been held up in part over questions from the FBI and the CIA about his foreign and business contacts, including those related to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, according to multiple people familiar with the events.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Kushner was part of a group that met with a Russian lawyer who went to Trump Tower claiming to have political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And during the presidential transition, Mr. Kushner had a meeting with the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey I. Kislyak, and the head of a Russian state-owned bank. When he applied for a security clearance, he did not reveal those meetings.
But he’s got the full clearance now. Donald Trump broke the system. He breaks everything. Anne Applebaum sees this:
One of the arguments I now hear frequently in European capitals – and I suspect the same is true in many other places all over the world – is the one about what happens after Trump. Will the next president of the United States, whether it’s in 2020 or 2024, return the United States to the standing that it once had? Will he or she be able to speak again, in the way American presidents have all done in recent memory, with the authority that comes not only from a large army but also from confidence in American democracy and values? Will we return to some kind of “normal” – a world where U.S. leadership lies at the heart of a series of alliances, from Central Europe to the Korean Peninsula?
I am afraid the events of the past day are proof that we won’t. Trump is creating facts on the ground that cannot be erased.
On the Korean Peninsula, we have enhanced the power and prestige of one of the world’s bloodiest and cruelest dictators. We have lost our credibility, both as a military power in the region and as a diplomatic leader: Nobody can be quite so certain, in the future, of our absolute willingness to defend South Korean allies who have received so much less attention from this president than their enemies in the North. Other countries in this region will no longer have faith in our ability to run a consistent sanctions policy, over a long period of time – the only kind of sanctions policy that works – and they will be less willing to follow us if we try. The same, of course, is true of sanctions on Iran. Why should anyone pay a price, sacrifice an investment, in order to support a U.S. policy that might alter radically at our next election? If this president can shift his loyalties so rapidly, then the next one might too, or else the one after that.
Trump is the man who broke America, with this too:
The same is true at home. Yes, eventually Trump will be gone. But the prestige and honor of the office of the presidency will not recover, or at least not very soon. We will not be able to erase the hard truth of the fact that the American people elected to the highest office a man who is, as his personal lawyer put it, a con man, a fraud and a racist. We will not find it possible to forget that one of our two great political parties, with decades of history and achievement behind it, maintained him in office even knowing that this was the case. Some of the Republicans at that hearing Wednesday did attack Cohen, questioning his reliability or his veracity. Notably, none dared question the specific charges he made – because they all knew, of course, that they were probably true.
The Cohen hearings also created facts on the ground that cannot be erased. It will not be possible to argue, in the future, that the president’s “character” should matter to voters, because this one’s clearly doesn’t. It will not be possible to argue that the office itself deserves bipartisan respect, now that it has been held by a professional fraudster who sought it for personal financial gain. Whole elements of U.S. politics will now be weakened, perhaps permanently. Once, even those who disagreed with evangelical Christians and social conservatives conceded that they had a place in politics, that they deserved to be heard. But why should anyone listen to them now? They are hypocrites. They supported a man who consorts with porn stars, secretly pays them off, breaks laws on charity and defrauds the state.
It’s all broken. No one wants to deliver bad news. But sometimes things are broken beyond repair. Things won’t get back to normal, if there ever was such a thing. No one wants to report that, but now they’ll have to. That’s the news. Donald Trump broke the world.