President Donald Trump told Bloomberg Monday that he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances, the latest in a series of odd moves that suggest Trump may still not grasp the power and signal-sending of such a gathering.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg in an Oval Office interview Monday. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”
That willingness to meet comes hard on the heels of Trump praising Kim as a “pretty smart cookie” in an interview with CBS’ John Dickerson.
And it comes just 48 hours after Trump had a “friendly conversation with Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte in which Trump invited the hugely controversial ruler to the White House.
(Trump is headed to the Philippines in November for a meeting of international leaders.)
Kim presides over a repressive regime. He executed his uncle, who was allegedly planning a coup in 2013. He continues to test ballistic missiles and has been open about his desire to acquire a nuclear warhead. Duterte is in the midst of an aggressive – and very controversial – anti-drug campaign that has left more than 7,000 dead.
Make no mistake: Trump is well aware that he is breaking with long-held White House tradition in offering men like Kim and Duterte an audience with president. Doubt it? Here’s Trump to Bloomberg about his willingness to meet with Kim: “Most political people would never say that but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”
“We have breaking news.” What that sentence should tell you is that Trump is being purposely provocative in order to help drive the narrative that he is an unorthodox politician willing to say and do things no other president would.
He also views it as a broader faith in his ability to sit down with anyone and cut a deal that is favorable for the US. It’s the same belief that’s driven Trump’s unwillingness to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin. Let me into a room with them, Trump seems to be saying, and you’ll be amazed the kind of deal I come out with.
There are two blind spots in that approach.
The first is the idea that Trump has the ability to make foreign leaders – particularly those with worldviews that are radically different than the United States – to do what he wants. This is the same logical fallacy that governed – and governs! – Trump’s insistence that Mexico will eventually pay for the border wall.
The second is that the very act of President Trump meeting with someone like Kim Jong Un sends an incredibly powerful symbol to the world. No matter what the readout of a meeting with Kim or Duterte winds up being, it almost doesn’t matter. The visuals are all to the good for these men. It puts them on equal footing with the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. Nothing Trump says or does changes that.
It’s odd that someone as image conscious as Trump doesn’t get that. Or that he believes so deeply in his ability to persuade even people like Kim or Duterte that he’s willing to stand side by side with them.
But, this is Trump. Say things to provoke and then find some way to justify them.