For a president who normally adheres to his own doctrine of infallibility, Donald Trump displayed a few flickering moments of uncertainty in the aftermath of the Singapore summit.
Asked by George Stephanopoulos in an ABC interview whether he trusts Kim Jong Un to dismantle his nuclear program, Trump replied, “I do trust him, yeah. Now, will I come back to you in a year and you’ll be interviewing and I’ll say, ‘Gee, I made mistake?’ That’s always possible.”
In response to a similar question at his press conference about the murkiness of of verification, Trump said, “I think he’s going to do these things. I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say, ‘Hey, I was wrong.’ I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of excuse.”
Trump is right?
The truth is (and I rarely type these words) Trump is right.
No one — probably not even the baby-faced North Korean tyrant — knows how this is going to play out. About the only certainty is that if the deal blows up, Trump, as he suggested, would find a way to blame it on bone spurs or Barack Obama.
Five years from now, this may be remembered as the week that peace came to the Korean Peninsula, almost 65 years after the armistice was signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953.
Or it plausibly could turn out that this was the week Japan quietly decided it could no longer depend on American military protection and needed its own nuclear deterrent.
Certainly, the Japanese, who are menaced by both North Korea and China, derived little security from Trump’s press conference announcement that he was canceling joint military exercises with South Korea. Or that the president stated his ultimate goal is to bring home the 32,000 American troops who serve as a trip wire in South Korea.
And no one could miss the whiff of isolationism as Trump complained, “We call them war games … and they’re tremendously expensive. The amount of money we spent on that is incredible.”
But as with all things in Trump’s smoke-and-mirrors presidency, it is also possible that all the hype and hoopla of the summit will have the lasting significance of an infrastructure week at the White House.
Watch: McConnell Says He Hopes for North Korea Treaty
Location, location, location
Trump may end up treating his sally to Singapore as nothing more than a failed real estate deal. He put together a glitzy iPad presentation for Kim built around the beachfront selling point, “You could have the best hotels in the world right there.”
If the client (Kim) ultimately reneges on the deal, Trump could simply move on to his next hustle — like searching for another country (maybe New Zealand) to join Canada on his Global Enemies List.
Seen from the perspective of 2023, the lasting news this week could turn out to be a non-Korean story that the White House seemingly tried to bury while all eyes were focused on Singapore — the financial disclosures of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
According to a Washington Post analysis, the two White House staffers with vague portfolios made a staggering $82 million in outside income in 2017. And that, because of the looseness of the categories on the disclosure forms, is a minimum estimate.
The trusts that hold many of the couple’s assets are anything but blind. There is no way to tell, for example, who is behind some of the entities buying Kushner properties. And a year ago, China gave the president’s daughter valuable and hard-to-get trademarks for her line of housewares and cushions.
Never has a first family raked in this kind of income while being so cavalier about the appearance of conflict of interest. And remember that John Kennedy was not exactly a pauper when he arrived at the White House. Nor was Nelson Rockefeller when he served as vice president.
Maybe the best way to appreciate the Singapore summit is pause to remember the road not taken. Just a few months ago, back in the “Little Rocket Man” Twitter era, the Trump administration was loudly hinting at launching “surgical strikes” against North Korea.
At the end of February, before he became Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton wrote a chilling op-ed for The Wall Street Journal making the legal case, “It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.”
The odds are high that Trump badly misjudged Kim when he gushed to Greta Van Susteren in a Voice of America interview, “Really, he’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people.”
But Trump is not the first American president to be gulled by a murderous dictator.
When Harry Truman met Joe Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam conference, he coaxed the Soviet leader into joining him for a lunch of liver and bacon, baked ham and postprandial cigars.
Afterward, Truman described Stalin, who probably killed more people than Adolf Hitler, as “honest — but smart as hell.” At least, Truman was right about the hell part.
Based on the public documents and Trump’s own statements, the nuclear deal with Kim Jong Un is laughably porous. That would be a valid criticism of any other president, regardless of party.
But with the erratic Trump, there is, at least, a sense of relief that we are talking real estate rather rattling sabers. Because as the 45th president continually reminds us, it could easily be worse.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.