After disappointing European allies by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and amid the rising drumbeat of scandal surrounding his longtime personal attorney, President Donald Trump has been increasingly focused on landing positive headlines out of his diplomacy with North Korea.
But as with other major policy initiatives – from the effort to repeal Obamacare to passing tax reform or scrapping the U.S. role in major international trade deals – the president has been more focused on scoring a history-making win while leaving the details to others.
That approach has tripped Trump up in the past, ultimately costing him a crucial first victory on his top policy priority early in his term after Republican members of Congress rebelled against scrapping the Affordable Care Act and even making tax reform a tough sell.
Former national security officials say there’s danger in approaching high-wire diplomacy as a made-for-TV moment without being in command of the particulars.
“Past presidents have cared about optics but still had a fundamental bottom line on substance,” said Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and former senior director of the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “I greatly worry that after pulling out of the Iran deal, Donald Trump is so desperate for a good headline that he’ll accept a deal that doesn’t eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons or potential, but he’ll say it does anyway.”
White House officials and Republicans close to the administration say the president now views North Korea as a pre-eminent issue. He sees in it the opportunity to cast himself as a serious, historic figure who’s dealt with a totalitarian leader in ways that his predecessors failed to do – even joking about deserving a Nobel Prize for the effort.
“He is attracted to the highest stakes and the most high-wire negotiations,” one White House official said. “This is the ultimate Trumpian scenario.”
Inside the White House, the North Korea meetings have been limited to a small circle of advisers that has included his press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and National Security Council Asia expert Matthew Pottinger.
The president is largely leaving the nitty-gritty to these top advisers, one administration official said.
“There is a healthy dose of skepticism,” said another White House aide. “There is understanding — not just with Trump, but with anyone going into this — that the odds are against you for getting everything you want in one big step.”
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump has said he will leave the North Korea talks, planned to take place in Singapore on June 12, if they aren’t “fruitful.” But he hasn’t set any clear boundaries, and Pompeo and Bolton have also been vague about what they intend to ask in terms of specific commitments to denuclearization.
Leaving the details to others has tripped up Trump in past big policy debates.
On health care, his fledgling administration assumed that it would repeal Obamacare by late February 2017 by resurrecting prior congressional bills. That strategy backfired when lawmakers worried about taking away people’s insurance without offering an alternative — dynamics that led Trump to remark that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”
A similar situation played out with tax reform, in which the president primarily concerned himself with the machinations of the corporate tax rate and the naming of the legislation. (He has often said in front of crowds that he wanted it called the “Cut, Cut, Cut Act” instead of the more staid Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.)
The majority of the policy details were then written by congressional Republicans instead of Trump’s insurgent White House, giving the legislation a very establishment Republican sheen and causing some administration aides to privately grouse that the bill left the individual-taxpayer side of the code a mess.
On foreign policy, Trump has also focused on the big picture — a fact that Republican wonks say puts him in the company of President Ronald Reagan, who, when asked about his policy on the Cold War, famously and simply said: “We win, they lose.”
On the Iran deal, Trump pulled out of the international agreement without any Plan B to deal with the region. The same happened with TPP, one of the trade deals his administration has disrupted, sending U.S. allies scurrying.
“Trump still acts a lot like he is in campaign mode on the domestic policy side. That is a different dynamic because it’s all Twitter,” said Jay Lefkowitz, President George W. Bush’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea, who also served in that White House as the deputy director of domestic policy.
Some foreign policy experts argue that the North Korea talks present the rare instance in which Trump’s showmanship could play to his advantage. With North Korea, he is building momentum for the summit and generating good will before delving into any details.
That started early Thursday morning with the arrival in the U.S. of three American prisoners who had been held by North Korea. The president and first lady greeted them on the airport tarmac in the middle of the night, with an American flag displayed behind the airplane.
“I am really positive on what Trump is doing so far,” Lefkowitz added. “I don’t think the traditional diplomatic processes have worked, and they have been bipartisan in not working. We’re not dealing with a traditional state actor who has an apparatus of policy actors below him. Kim Jong Un doesn’t really have anyone below him, so there is really only one person to negotiate with there. Having some State Department papers teed up doesn’t make sense.”
Other Asia experts stressed that Trump’s handling of North Korea has been fine so far — as long as he eventually turns over the details of the negotiations to staff and advisers more familiar with the region — once the initial meetings occur.
“Trump’s natural instincts, in this case, are good, but he has to not oversell what he achieves,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “He has to be satisfied with taking the temperature and then getting his national security team to see if Kim really means it.”