The announcement on Thursday night that President Trump planned to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, likely in May, was weird. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed blindsided by the move, it breaks with U.S. precedent (no sitting commander in chief has ever met with a North Korean leader), and it was announced at the White House in part by South Korean officials, rather than senior U.S. figures, like Tillerson or national security adviser H.R. McMaster or Trump.
Pair this announcement with what else happened on Thursday — Trump enacting new aluminum and steel tariffs over the objections of Republicans in Congress — and you have the president not only doing things that are surprising, but doing them on big, consequential issues. Until now, he has largely reserved his boldness for tweets and other rhetoric rather than actions.
Is Trump growing more willing to break political norms and traditions in deed as well as word? It’s too soon to say. But here are five things Trump’s North Korea and tariffs moves tell us about the president’s impulses.
1. Trump is leading — Trump often seems like a weak and disengaged president, with his ideas downplayed and/or ignored by Republicans on Capitol Hill (his infrastructure proposal) and even his own staffers (his Democrat-friendly positions on immigration and guns at recent bipartisan meetings). But on tariffs and North Korea, Trump appears to have taken control. He took advantage of the fact that Congress doesn’t have to sign off on either of these decisions and that even if his staffers want to rein him in (as they sometimes do), that becomes a lot tougher when he publicly announces a policy.
2. But his ideas can still be slowed or sanded down — Last year, Trump, without really consulting the Pentagon, announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military. Though Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would probably dispute this characterization, it appears that he doesn’t agree with the ban and is basically doing everything he can not to implement it. Or, to take another example: The president wants an expensive military parade, à la France’s Bastille Day celebration. I’m not sure that will happen either.
Even Trump’s bold moves this week demonstrate the extent to which he is still operating within constraints. While Trump aides initially said his tariffs would have no exceptions, the final policy exempted Canada and Mexico as the president seemed to bow to complaints from congressional Republicans.
Do I think that Trump and Kim will appear in a room together this year? Most likely. It will be hard for his aides to stop this meeting from happening now. But what that meeting will look like is another story. I suspect his aides will try to shift the session away from what Trump probably has in mind (him bonding with Kim and making a deal) and toward a more formal diplomatic session (lots of senior officials from the U.S. in the room trying to keep Trump on the script they have written for him).
3. The establishment hates tariffs more than meeting with North Korea, so the stakes are different for Trump — The tariffs created a rift between Trump and fellow Republicans, and also between the president and top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn, who seems to be quitting in protest. In other words, the GOP opposes the tariffs in ways that create political problems for Trump.
In contrast, while Tillerson may have wished for greater consultation between Trump and himself ahead of the announcement of the Kim meeting, the secretary of state has been calling for months for more diplomacy in dealing with North Korea — including direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington — so it’s unlikely he would follow Cohn in resigning.
And while congressional hawks might object to this meeting, I don’t think Republicans in Congress will mount serious opposition to it because — even if they see it as ill-advised — it does not violate core GOP orthodoxy the way tariffs do. In fact, Vice President Mike Pence, hardly considered a dove before joining the Trump administration, was reportedly going to meet with North Korean officials himself.
4. Trump’s moves are only opening bids, so a lot depends on how he follows up — Outside of a few Democrats running in red states, it’s hard to find many people in Washington who agree with Trump’s tariffs. Economic experts on the right and left strongly oppose them, arguing that they will start a trade war that hurts the U.S. economy. Trump now owns the course that tariffs take, whether that lurches the country toward economic warfare or not.
On North Korea, some experts are already saying the meeting is dumb: Trump is giving Kim something the Asian leader really wants (a sit-down with a U.S. president that puts the two nations on somewhat equal footing) for nothing in return (North Korea hasn’t agreed to give up its nuclear capabilities).
Consider these words from Georgetown professor and North Korea expert Victor Cha in a New York Times op-ed after the news of the proposed meeting emerged:
Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy. In which case, as Mr. Trump has said, we really will have ‘run out of road’ on North Korea.
But it’s not clear this meeting will make things much worse, since North Korea seems hell-bent on a nuclear weapons program anyway. And Trump’s move is also receiving some positive feedback, especially from Democrats who have advocated for a less confrontational approach toward Kim. Leon Panetta, who was defense secretary under President Obama, called it a “positive step.”
5. Trump will argue his aggressive rhetoric is working, but there’s no reason to think it is — I expect Trump and his aides to cast this meeting as a sign that the president’s threats to attack North Korea — remember “fire and fury” and a “much bigger and more powerful” nuclear button — brought Kim to the negotiating table. I would be skeptical of that claim. President Obama probably could have met with Kim Jong Un (or Presidents Clinton and Bush with his father Kim Jong Il, the previous North Korean leader) if they had wanted. They didn’t deem such an encounter the best way to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and they may have been correct.
We don’t know whether this meeting, even if it’s historic, will lead to the North Koreans’ pulling back from their nuclear program. We don’t know whether the imposition of tariffs, and the threats from Trump that made them sound extra menacing, will have the effect of cowing other countries’ trade posture into something more to the U.S.’s liking. Moreover, we don’t know if bad results will cow Trump himself or whether he’ll continue to feel free to act on his personal positions regardless of what his policy advisers and Washington Republicans think.