Politics

‘Beast’ Mode: Democrats Worry Kim Is Playing Trump

GOP is willing to give him time, but Dems see ‘unprepared’ president

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un participate in a signing ceremony during a Tuesday meeting on Sentosa Island in Singapore. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Kim Jong Un peered inside as a Secret Service agent held open a door of “The Beast,” President Donald Trump’s heavily armored limousine. The surreal moment left some lawmakers speechless, with Democrats saying it showed Trump was too conciliatory toward the North Korean leader during their historic summit.

Trump and Kim wrapped their Singapore summit by signing a preliminary nuclear agreement Tuesday that is as sweeping as it is vague. It expresses the United States is “committed” to providing unspecified security assurances to the North and that Kim “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

GOP members said they are willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt that his chummy approach during the hours he spent with Kim and the concessions he made — like a pledge to end annual joint military exercises with South Korea — were necessary to convince Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.

But many Democratic members were beyond skeptical, accusing Trump of a reality television-like stunt that allowed the North Korean leader to secure a list of concessions and begin altering his image on foreign soil.

Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Foreign Relations Committee member, called the summit a “dream outcome for Kim.” Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, another panel member, said the summit exposed the president as a “weak negotiator” and “unprepared,” saying the agreement text was “watered down” and shifted the talks toward the North’s desired goals.

House Minority WhipSteny H. Hoyer said the meeting — during which cameras caught the pair shaking hands, slapping each other’s shoulders and smiling widely — showed Trump “does very well with despots and dictators,” possibly because he “thinks he is in position to be one himself.”

[Vague Pact Signed, Trump Sees ‘Arduous’ Process Ahead With North Korea]

“Nothing that has been reported yet to suggest a meaningful agreement,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said Tuesday. “The fact that they are talking is a good thing. But, in the end, if we’re going to be safe from nuclear weapons, we need something that is going to be verifiable and trustworthy.”

Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen bluntly tweeted that Kim is playing the U.S. leader like a musical instrument.

Like other members, Durbin shook his head slightly and drew a long breath when asked about the president showing Kim the inside of “The Beast.”

“He gave Kim Jong Un the best PR day of his life in terms of publicity,” Durbin said. “First, just to meet with the president, but then to be invited to the White House. I thought the president showed a little too much slip there, as they say.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, an Intelligence Committee member, also drew a long breath and chuckled when asked if he would have shown a head of state whom Human Rights Watch says runs one of the most brutal governments on the planet the inside of the taxpayer-funded presidential limo. “That’s fine, I think,” he said.

Hoyer and other Democrats suggested Trump gave up leverage and allowed Kim to leave without agreeing to major concessions, with the House’s No. 2 Democrat saying the “price of this piece of political theater was America giving the North Koreans what they sought without receiving anything real in return.”

He also said the U.S.-North Korean statement, which Trump acknowledged lacks key details the two sides will try to address in coming months, shows “Congress now has to set clear expectations on what any deal with North Korea must include — before we lose our leverage.”

For vulnerable Senate Democrats like Armed Services member Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the mere optics of a sitting U.S. president directly trying to head off a military confrontation with the North necessitates a political high-wire act.

“It’s good that the president is using diplomacy rather than tweeting-by-insult. That’s great. The other issue is it’s way too early to make any judgements,” she said. But she and other members expressed concern about Trump agreeing to end the yearly U.S.-South Korean military exercises — especially without first contacting Seoul.

“That remains to be seen whether that’s a good idea,” she said.

California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressed concern that Trump “is making concessions to North Korea with nothing to show in return” — a charge the president rejected.

Trump contended the North took steps before and during the talks that amounted to concessions, such as the release earlier this spring of three American hostages.

He also pointed to Kim on Tuesday agreeing to recover the remains of U.S. troops killed during the Korean War on what is now North Korean soil; a pledge to stop all missile tests; the closure of his “primary” nuclear test site, and the destruction of a missile engine test site Trump said he secured after text of the agreement was written and the document signed.

Republican members, meanwhile, said they are willing to stand by Trump — and his conciliatory approach to Kim — if it means pushing him closer to giving up his atomic arsenal.

“I thought all indications are that we’ve started down a path that could lead to our goal. We’ll just have to see,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, a GOP leadership team member. “I’d be concerned about any discussion about removing troops from [South] Korea. … But it’s a situation that needs attention and the president is giving them attention.”

Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham called it “fine” to put the South Korean military exercises on hold while future rounds of talks with the North occur. “The only reason you do war exercises is to tell North Korea, ‘Don’t engage in war because ...  you’ll lose it,’” the South Carolina Republican said. “It gives us a little breathing space.”

Cornyn urged his fellow members to give Trump “some latitude” in dealing with the North, saying, “If you’re talking, then you’re not fighting.” And Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa urged “caution” in dealing with “a country that we’ve never had much dealing with” while being “hopeful.”

While GOP members like Graham and Blunt described a future concession of removing U.S. troops from the region as a likely deal breaker for them, Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One for the long journey back to Washington that doing that is “not in the equation.”

[Trump Cannot Leave Kim Summit Empty Handed, Lawmakers Say]

Though Trump has, for now, dropped his hawkish rhetoric toward Kim, Graham and other GOP members issued the kind of warnings the president has over the last 16 months.

“The one thing that Kim has got to understand is by meeting Trump and shaking his hand, and getting him to lavish you in praise is, if you try to play Trump and back out, there’s going to be a war,” Graham said. “And nobody wants a war.”

GOP Rep. Tom Reed of New York was more succinct, saying in a statement that “if Kim Jong Un throws away this opportunity, it will mean the military destruction of his country and his death.”

Before any formal treaty is signed and sent to the Senate, Trump acknowledged the agreement reached on Tuesday merely kicks off an “arduous” process. And he said he and his team are going into whatever comes next with their “eyes wide open.”

But his declarations that Kim is “very talented” and a “worthy negotiator” irked Democrats — and illustrated the differences with his recent statements about America’s longtime G-7 allies. Trump said he and Kim are “prepared to start a new history and start a chapter between our two nations,” adding: “Adversaries can indeed become friends.”

Leaders in Ottawa, Brussels, Paris, London and Mexico City might be wondering if the opposite is also true in the Trump era.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.