On Monday night, history was made: An American president met with the leader of North Korea.
It was a remarkable moment as President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un walked toward one another and shook hands just after 9 a.m. local time in Singapore. It was also a made-for-TV moment as the two men exchanged pleasantries – “Nice to meet you Mr. President,” Kim said to Trump – before quickly heading to chairs where they made brief statements.
Trump said it was his “honor” to be there for the summit. Kim acknowledged the difficulties getting to the summit but said that those challenges had been overcome. “For us, the past has been holding us back, and old practices and prejudices have been covering our eyes and ears, but we have been able to overcome everything to arrive here today,” Kim said.
The two men met – accompanied by only translators – for 45 minutes. This is obviously the first step in a broader process, both today and going forward. With that caveat, my first impressions of the summit, and the two main participants involved, are below.
*Kim was very happy just to be there: When the two men first shook hands, Trump worked to keep a smile from creeping across his face. Kim had no such compunction, smiling broadly. And when the two men sat for a brief photo op before beginning their conversation, Kim again was seen smiling broadly.
And no wonder: Three months ago, he was a bunkered-in, totally isolated leader of a rogue nation. On Tuesday morning in Singapore, he shook hands with the leader of the most powerful country in the world, with a backdrop of American and North Korean flags intermixed behind them. Stunning.
*Trump was suppressing his natural Trump-ness: Trump, for anyone who knows him, is hugely (and overly) solicitous one-on-one. This is true when dealing with reporters, politicians or world leaders. (Yes, Trump is flattering with reporters one-on-one.)
He was clearly coached not to look too exuberant or joyous in the initial handshake or even when the two men sat for a photo op. But Trump is Trump. He offered a thumbs up to Kim as the North Korean leader wrapped up his initial remarks to reporters. Trump, sitting across from Kim in a broader working lunch soon after their meeting, said it was “very, very good” and that the two men now had an “excellent relationship.” (At that point, Trump had spent less than an hour – in his entire life – with Kim.)
*The one-on-one meeting was more show than work: A 45-minute meeting, for anyone who has sat through one, isn’t all that short. But remember that the two leaders were speaking through interpreters – meaning that the actual conversation was about half that time. Which isn’t long at all.
In the run-up to this summit, Trump shaped expectations to suggest that this one on one meeting was more a meet and greet than it was a deep policy dive. That appears to be exactly what it was. It’s also uniquely possible that the diplomats below Trump and Kim had already largely agreed on the parameters of some sort of deal – or at least a tangible takeaway – from the summit, and the two leaders were simply affirming that in person.
*Both men really want this to work out: From the moment the two leaders emerged for the handshake to the second the pool cameras were ushered out of the working lunch, the entire vibe – on both sides – was optimistic and, dare I say it, warm. Trump grabbed Kim’s upper arm as they shook hands. The two talked as they strolled from the one-on-one sit-down to the broader meeting of their diplomatic staffs. Trump insisted, before the meeting even started, said it was going to be “a great discussion” and a “tremendous success.”
That tenor was in keeping with Trump’s attitude in the run-up to the summit in which – even in the moment when he kind of, sort of canceled the gathering – the President made very clear he wanted this all to happen. Trump and Kim knew that this was amazing theater. Both love political theater. And they seemed totally committed to make it look as good as possible today.