At the press conference following his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on Tuesday, President Trump called himself “an emissary of the American people” and spoke of “my instinct, my ability or talent” for negotiation. “My whole life has been deals,” said Trump. “I’ve done great at it.”
Trump is indeed a skilled salesman, and his presentation of the new U.S.-North Korean denuclearization agreement is a fine sales job. But the target of that sales job isn’t Kim. It’s you. Trump and Kim are working together to pass off their toothless pact as a milestone. It’s a con, and you’re the mark.
Three times during his press conference, Trump was asked about North Korea’s failure to honor previous agreements in which it made similar pledges. Each time the question was asked, Trump blamed the collapse of these agreements on previous American presidents. As evidence, Trump claimed that during the summit, Kim had told him that North Korea lacked “confidence” in Trump’s predecessors. In a post-summit interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump said Kim had explained that “he was let down by the United States.” Far from challenging this statement, Trump used it to bolster his argument that no other American president could have worked with North Korea as Trump has. “I don’t think they honestly could have done it,” said Trump.
This is the key to understanding the Trump-Kim relationship: Trump isn’t competing with Kim, or even trying to win him over. He’s using Kim to compete for status with previous American presidents. “A lot of people are saying it’s historic,” Trump told Stephanopoulos, referring to the summit. “We’ve done something that’s very unique. Nobody’s met with the [Kim] family. … No president has, certainly.”
If Trump’s goal had been to maximize concessions from North Korea, he would have set high standards for the agreement, conveyed resolve, and kept his cards close to his vest. He has done the opposite. In the press conference, Trump blabbed about the limits of U.S. intelligence on North Korea: “probably less there than any other country.” He explained how we had detected Kim’s missile engine testing site: “We’re able to see because of the heat that it emits.”
In a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity on Tuesday, Trump said his months of threats against North Korea before the two agreed to meet had just been bluffs: “The rhetoric, I hated to do it, sometimes I felt foolish doing it.” And he shrugged off the idea of holding Kim to human rights standards. “He has to be a rough guy,” Trump told Voice of America.
When your adversary wants concessions, you’re supposed to raise the price by projecting reluctance.
Instead, Trump has expressed eagerness to do what Kim wants. Trump says he wants to end joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea—a longstanding North Korean goal—since he wants save money anyway. He hints at a rift in the alliance with Seoul, grousing that South Korea doesn’t pay the whole cost of the exercises. And he signals that he’d be happy to pull U.S. troops off the peninsula altogether: “I want to get our soldiers out.”
Trump isn’t trying to impress Kim. He’s trying to impress you. He starts by lowering the bar, claiming that any summit outcome is better than the nuclear holocaust people feared after Trump escalated the war of words with Pyongyang. “You could have lost, you know, 30-, 40-, 50 million people” in a nuclear war, Trump pointed out in the press conference. Then, to pad the tally of gains from the summit, Trump double-counts things North Korea had done beforehand: releasing hostages and suspending missile launches. Trump demands extra credit for not giving North Korea $150 billion, which he falsely claims Obama gave up in the nuclear deal with Iran. (Spoiler: It was Iran’s money.)
In the Singapore agreement, Trump hasn’t insisted that Kim accept clear methods of verification.
Instead, Trump asks you to accept Kim’s vague assurances. “I do trust him,” Trump told Stephanopoulos. When asked how denuclearization will be verified, Trump offers mumbo jumbo: “It’s going to be achieved by having a lot of people there, and as we develop a certain trust.” Trump says you’ll have to wait 15 years for proof that the deal was honored, since “scientifically,” it takes that long to denuclearize.
As usual, Trump is lying. And he’s happy to enlist Kim in the con. At the press conference, David Sanger of the New York Times asked Trump whether Kim’s promises were based on an adequate logistical understanding of “dismantling both the uranium and the plutonium processes” of his nuclear program. “He understands it so well,” Trump replied. “He understands it better than the people that are doing the work for him.”
Trump has spent a lifetime using other people’s celebrity to promote himself and his products. To him, Kim is just another celebrity. That’s why he spoke at the press conference about North Korea as a real estate paradise with beautiful beaches. It’s also why Trump credited Kim with saving, through North Korean participation, this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. “They weren’t exactly selling tickets,” said Trump. But once “Chairman Kim said, ‘Let’s participate in the Olympics,’ it sold like wildfire and was a great success.”
The summit, too, was an entertainment success. For that, Trump is happy to praise Kim and collaborate in the pretense of landmark concessions. Thanks for watching.
Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.
Slate · by William Saletan · June 13, 2018