I don’t think we know that Sarah Sanders either knew what she was talking about in the just concluded press briefing or whether, if she did, what she said will remain operative through the day or the week. But the upshot of Sanders briefing this afternoon was to walk back dramatically the announcement last night that President Trump would meet with Kim Jong Un.
A meeting by May at a place to be determined has been replaced with a meeting at some place and at some time. The fixed time before which seems gone. Sanders also spoke of needing to see concrete and verifiable steps toward denuclearization for the summit to happen. But from what we understood last night, nothing like that was promised. What was promised was suspending further nuclear or ballistic missile tests before the meeting and presumably in a subsequent period of negotiation or normalization. There’s no need to verify any of this. The US can tell very easily when a ballistic missile is fired or when there’s a nuclear test.
Again, in the Trump administration, you can’t assume that the Press Secretary knows what she is talking about, that she is speaking for US policy or that US policy won’t change in the following hours or days. But … this briefing strongly suggests that the White House sees what happened yesterday as a major mistake or misstep that they are now trying to moonwalk back as quickly as possible.
That read is bolstered by this report from The New York Times about how last night happened …
Behind the scenes, events unfolded even more haphazardly. Mr. Trump was not scheduled to meet Mr. Chung until Friday, but when he heard that the envoy was in the West Wing seeing other officials, the president summoned him to the Oval Office, according to a senior administration official.
Mr. Trump, the official said, then asked Mr. Chung to tell him about his meeting with Mr. Kim. When Mr. Chung said that the North Korean leader had expressed a desire to meet Mr. Trump, the president immediately said he would do it, and directed Mr. Chung to announce it to the White House press corps.
Mr. Chung, nonplused, said he first needed approval from Mr. Moon, who quickly granted it in a phone call. Mr. Trump later called Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and the two discussed coordinating diplomatic efforts. Mr. Trump also plans to call President Xi Jinping of China.
I had feared and assumed that President Trump had agreed to the meeting without consulting any of his top foreign policy advisors. It turns out to have been even stupider than I had imagined.
He didn’t just not ask. There doesn’t even seem to have been an actual invitation – or at least that was not what the South Koreans believed they were coming to discuss. The President ordered the South Korean representative, Mr. Chung, to the Oval Office and proceeded to quiz him about his meeting with Kim. Chung mentioned Kim’s eagerness to meet with Trump and Trump said he would do it. This seems to have come as quite a surprise to Mr. Chung and said he had to get the approval of the South Korean President. In such a situation, it would be hard for the South Koreans to refuse the stated desire of the President of the United States and they may not necessarily have wanted to. The key point is that this was the product of the President riffing with no guidance.
I further note that in a readout of a call with Chinese President Xi just released moments ago the White House says “the two leaders welcomed the prospect of dialogue between the United States and North Korea …” Again, that’s a rather substantial tamping down of expectations.
This seems quite fluid. I would not rule out the meeting taking place. And as I wrote this morning, dialogue, even clumsy and stupid, is better than where we’ve been heading. But it seems clear that the White House is now trying hard to get out of what the President seemed to promise and demand just last night.