On the one hand, Trump fashions himself as a historic figure -- someone able to do things no one else can (or even thinks about). A summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was, even as recently as six months ago, a totally outlandish proposition. Nuclear war -- or at least an escalation of tensions between America and North Korea seemed like the more likely outcome -- particularly after Kim referred to Trump as a "dotard" and Trump coined Kim's nickname, "Little Rocket Man."
From that seeming chaos and escalation came, somewhat suddenly, the idea of a summit. Once proposed -- a message carried to the White House by South Korea -- Trump leaped at the opportunity. This was history in the making, he told anyone who would ask. They said I couldn't do it, but I'm doing it!
in late April: "Funny how all of the Pundits that couldn't come close to making a deal on North Korea are now all over the place telling me how to make a deal!"
On the other hand, Trump has built his entire adult life on the concept of deal-making -- a critical piece of which is knowing when to walk away from a bad deal.
"'Know when to walk away from the table.' The Art of the Deal," Trump tweeted
, quoting himself, back in 2011.
His entire presidential campaign -- and, indeed, much of his presidency -- is premised on the idea that politicians have made terrible deals with foreign countries
that have made it very difficult for the United States to succeed. The critical element of Trump's famed pledge to "Make America Great Again" is that he will start looking out for America first, rather than letting other countries take advantage of us.
Trump's promise to be tough and strong was being severely tested by Kim's government as the summit -- which was scheduled for June 12 -- approached. Earlier this week, the North Korean government released a scathing statement lambasting Vice President Mike Pence as a "political dummy."
Sources tell CNN that was the last straw for Trump, who made the decision to call off the summit Thursday morning and announced it via a publicly released letter soon after.
The letter, which you can read in full here
, speaks to the divided mind of Trump on the summit, the decision to cancel it and his hopes for the future.
There is boasting and tough guy talk here. "Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. ...You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used."
That rhetoric invokes Trump's famous/infamous tweet from earlier this year.
"North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,'" Trump tweeted on January 2
. "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"
But there's also an attempt to preserve the idea of the summit. This passage, in particular, sticks out:
"I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you. In the meantime, I want to thank you for the release of the hostages who are now home with their families. That was a beautiful gesture and was very much appreciated."
That language is the language of flattery, not of fire and fury
. (Trump also opens the cancellation letter on that foot, "We greatly appreciate your time, patience, and effort with respect to our recent negotiations and discussions relative to a summit long sought by both parties," he wrote.)
It's clear -- and has been for weeks now -- that Trump simultaneously:
- Badly wanted this summit because he knew it would be a historic moment no matter what came out of it. (No sitting American president had ever met face to face with a North Korean leader.)
- Could not totally lose face in the run-up to the meeting or run the risk of looking weak in the face of ramped-up North Korean provocations.
It's why every public statement -- or tweet -- Trump made on North Korea sounded like a bit of a jumble. The summit was going to be historic and no one other than Trump could have made it happen ... or maybe it won't happen at all. We'll see!
"If it doesn't happen, maybe it will happen later," Trump said earlier this week. "You never know about deals. ... I've made a lot of deals. You never really know. It may not work out for June 12."
In the battle between making history and avoiding a bad deal, it would appear -- from both Trump's letter to Kim and his past public statements -- that he favors the former, if and when he is forced to choose.
Which means, in Trump's own vernacular, stay tuned! This is a setback, quite clearly. But Trump seems to be signaling that this may well not be the season finale but rather just a mid-season twist.