As Donald Trump heads to Vietnam for the second summit of his presidency with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, one big question remains: Is the rogue nation still a nuclear threat or, well, isn’t it?
Following the first summit with Kim, Trump tweeted: “Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!”
So that seems pretty clear, right? “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” Problem solved! Nothing to see here, folks!
Which brings me to Sunday morning, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with CNN’s Jake Tapper to talk about, among other things, the coming summit. And this exchange happened:
TAPPER: Do you — do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?
TAPPER: But the President said he doesn’t.
POMPEO: That’s not what he said.
I mean, I know — I know precisely…
TAPPER: He tweeted: “There’s no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”
POMPEO: Right. What — what he said is that the — what he said was that the efforts that had been made in Singapore, this commitment that Chairman Kim, may have substantially taken down the risk to the American people. It’s the mission of the secretary of state and the President of the United States to keep the American people secure. We’re aiming to achieve that.
TAPPER: OK. I mean, that’s just a direct quote, but I want to move on.
I mean, WHAT?
Let’s detail Pompeo’s response when called on his direct contradiction of the President’s assertion that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat:
1) “That’s not what he said.” It is, in fact, exactly what he said.
2) “What he said was that the efforts that had been made in Singapore, this commitment that Chairman Kim, may have substantially taken down the risk to the American people.” But — it is what he said. Like, exactly.
It is logically impossible to conclude anything from Trump’s tweet and Pompeo’s comments about North Korea other that the President and the secretary of state are in direct opposition in their analysis of the threat posed by the rogue nation. One says North Korea remains a nuclear threat. The other says it doesn’t. This isn’t about a hairsbreadth difference between two very similar positions. Those positions are in direct opposition. The end.
Trump’s governing-via-Twitter has always been problematic — and never more so than when it comes to foreign policy and diplomacy. Whether you love Twitter or hate it (I feel both ways), you have to acknowledge that 280 characters may not leave enough room to express the complexities and nuances of America’s dealings with North Korea (or, really, any country.)
When you combine the limits, quite literally, of Twitter with Trump’s own thin-skinnedness and tendency to always create a story where he is the hero, you can see how we got to this state of contradiction on North Korea. Trump faced heavy criticism for sitting down with Kim with no preconditions. The meeting was viewed skeptically because North Korea made no hard-and-fast pledges coming out of it. Trump, deeply sensitive to how he was being covered, decided to declare total victory: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
That pledge was, from the second it was made, overly optimistic. By a lot. But because he is the President and because Pompeo likes serving as secretary of state, the former Kansas congressman can’t just come out and tell Tapper that Trump spoke too soon in regard to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Because to do so would jeopardize his job — even if it’s the reality.
And so Pompeo is left trying to convince us that he and Trump are on the same page, when it’s clear to any person who is paying even the least bit of attention that their views are not in accord at all.
The bigger issue here? We are talking about whether a rogue nation continues to pursue a nuclear weapon. And even as the President of the United States heads halfway around the world to sit down with Kim again, he and his top diplomat can’t seem to agree on that basic point.