Donald Trump’s maverick decision to meet with the North Korean leader breaks with decades of US foreign policy thinking and tees up the prospect, if it ultimately happens, of a sensational nuclear summit worthy of the history books.
It’s incredible – and we have a tendency to overuse that word in the Trump era, but this is – that the US President would so quickly pivot from aggressive catcalls at “little rocket man” Kim Jong Un and threatening “fire and fury” to accepting an invitation to face-to-face talks.
While the stakes of such a meeting cannot be understated, it’s actually not that surprising in the context of Trump’s negotiating tactics, although his track record as Presidential negotiator makes this gamble all the more frightening.
For starters, Trump appears to have such confidence in his abilities as a negotiator that he thinks he can emerge from talks with the young despot with some kind of accord about North Korea’s nuclear program. Never mind that many foreign policy experts argue that with the simple fact of the meeting, Kim has already achieved his objective: he’s at the table on the world stage, being taken seriously.
But how might Trump act? Here’s what we know from his interactions with opponents, foreign and domestic.
Take his two most recent (and his most high profile) attempts to bridge ideological divides on Capitol Hill. (We’re leaving out tax reform here, which is his top policy accomplishment, but was done with only members of his own party, with whom he has the most leverage.)
On guns, many promises
Trump invited Democrats and Republicans to the White House for talks in an attempt to find bipartisan accord.
What happened? He emceed a roundtable discussion at which he promised repeatedly to get a bill passed, teased possible for support for things like an assault weapons ban that would not pass muster with his own party, and encouraged lawmakers to get out of their ideological corners. Days later, he was dining with the NRA, the idea of standing up to them was a memory, and Congress had moved on.
On immigration, many promises
Trump invited Democrats and Republicans to the White House for talks in an attempt to bind bipartisan accord.
What happened? He emceed a roundtable discussion at which he promised repeatedly to get a bill passed, teased possible support for things like a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented that would not pass muster with his own party, and encouraged lawmakers to get out of their ideological corners. Days later, he was rejecting a bipartisan proposal from lawmakers and, ultimately, spiking an potential for legislative movement on Capitol Hill.
The point here is that Trump, in the room during negotiations, is open-minded and benevolent, promising to meet people halfway. But when the cameras are off, he seems to harden.
Obviously, those are domestic examples and domestic issues. There’s a big difference between Trump negotiating with Dianne Feinstein or Chuck Schumer and Trump negotiating though an interpreter with Kim. So we’ll be in uncharted territory.
There are some examples of Trump negotiating with foreign leaders – none of them Kim! – and we can learn things from those, too.
On China, a great personal relationship and chocolate cake – and a nixed trade deal
Early in his presidency, Trump wined and dined the Chinese leader at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Trump later gushed about the meeting, about his President Xi Jinping, and about the beautiful chocolate cake they shared in April of 2017.
Standing up to China had been a top campaign promise of Trump, but he hoped that momentum and that relationship would help him get China to apply more pressure to North Korea. The gains were short-lived; Trump was frustrated with China over North Korea a few months later. Trump, however, has not been vocal in raising concerns about the Chinese leader’s consolidation of power, instead jokingly praising it.
It also bears mentioning that Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership gave away a large piece of economic leverage the US could have used against China. He didn’t try to use the US departure, a victory for China, to get anything from China. He did it for ideological reason and to live up to his “America First” campaign promises. Eleven countries that would have been in the TPP with the US have moved forward with the trade deal on their own.
On Russia, disagreements over what was said
Given the fact he doesn’t believe in Russia election meddling or that Russians were trying to help him defeat Clinton despite the unanimous declaration of his intelligence community, it’s probably not surprising that Trump wouldn’t stand up to the Russian president during their meetings on the sidelines of a summit in Germany last July, but he did raise the concerns over the American people on the issue.
The more important element to consider from that first Putin interaction that can be applied to a possible Kim meeting is that nobody could agree what exactly was said. Immediately after, there was a diplomatic a dustup when Putin’s foreign minister, who was in the room, said the US President accepted Putin’s denials of meddling. Trump’s secretary of state, who was also in the room, said he didn’t. Trump later, in November, after a meeting in Asia, said he believed Putin’s denials of election meddling.
Regardless of what was said or what he believes, Trump’s distance from the intelligence community on the issue of election meddling and his deference to Putin will be a benchmark of his first year in office.
On Mideast Peace, a gift to Israel
Republican politicians have long teased a promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a huge priority of Israelis and a snub to Palestinians, who also view the city as their capital. Trump has, heretofore, followed through, beginning the process of recognizing Jersualem as Israel’s capital through without asking anything from Israel – dismantling controversial settlements or returning to the peace talk negotiating table – in return. It calls into question his simultaneous promise to be a “neutral guy” on the Mideast.
On Mexico, private frustration and confrontation
Trump’s interactions with world leaders are not always deferential. His rhetoric on Mexico has been, if anything, more strident, and certainly more sustained, than his rhetoric on North Korea. He called Mexicans rapists in announcing his candidacy and turned his promise that Mexico pay for a border wall into a call and response applause line at campaign rallies. It was the single promise he was most identified with coming into the White House.
But in speaking to the Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto shortly after taking office, he asked the leader for a sop to allay his supporters, according to a transcript obtained by The Washington Post. Trump wanted Peña Nieto to stop refusing to pay for the border wall even though Trump admitted he would not.
“You cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall,” he said. “I am just going to say that we are working it out. Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important to talk about.”
Things have not improved. More recently, in February Peña Nieto called off a visit to the White House after a confrontational call with Trump in which Trump refused to publicly say Mexico would not pay for a border wall.
A Mexican official, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, said Trump “lost his temper” and US officials said Trump was “frustrated and exasperated, saying Trump believed it was unreasonable for Peña Nieto to expect him to back off his crowd-pleasing campaign promise of forcing Mexico to pay for the wall.”
The tense relationship could further complicate Trump’s efforts to renegotiate NAFTA. He’s exempted Canada and Mexico from new steel and aluminum tariffs for the time being, but threatened that if an update to the North American trade deal cannot be reached, he’ll withdraw the US. As with TPP and the Paris climate agreement, he’s shown no compunction about withdrawing the US from international deals.
That’s a lot of information, some of it conflicting, about Trump as a presidential negotiator. Which Trump will show up if this meeting with North Korea happens? The one who makes promises and is open to compromise? The one who wines and dines with chocolate cake? The one who gets frustrated and insists on certain points for PR reasons? And will anyone agree on what was said?