President Trump returned from the Singapore summit with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un more exposed than ever, with the method of his presidency confirmed — not as a master of the art of the deal but the kind of salesman who gives them all a bad name.
Throughout his life Trump prepared for the presidency by honing his pitchman’s talents. Where others studied history, climbed the party ladder, or apprenticed as legislators and governors, Trump promoted himself as the most capable man on earth. Early in his career, his most shameless bit of hype involved offering himself to negotiate an arms treaty with the Soviet Union, which possessed the firepower to annihilate the West many times over.
As a callow younger man known to few outside New York City, Trump received little notice when he first volunteered to save the world. Unwelcome among diplomats and arms control experts, he embarked on a decades-long run of scandals, business promotion, bankruptcies, and role-playing.
After Trump became president, Barack Obama told him that North Korea would be his greatest challenge. As much as Trump seems driven to erase the Obama legacy, he is always keen for an opportunity. It’s easy to imagine that, with this warning, the man who liked to say “only I can fix it” decided to be bold on the subject of North Korea.
Halfway around the world, Kim took the measure of the man in the White House and began demonstrating both his nuclear weapons technology and rockets that are powerful enough to reach the continental United States.
What Kim saw in Trump is what the rest of the world has noted. Resistant to reading, and this includes daily presidential briefs on security issues, Trump may be the least well-informed man ever to occupy the Oval Office. He confuses pomp and display with achievement, and his commitment to his own legend makes him so overconfident that when asked how he prepared for a nuclear summit he mentioned, not briefings and papers, but his life experience.
For the past year, as Kim baited the president into a psychodrama — Trump called him “Little Rocket Man” and Kim shot back with “dotard” — the North Korean leader prepared to put his own lifelong experience to work. Unlike Trump, of course, Kim’s life has been about the use of power in all of its forms. Where Trump was the heir to a Brooklyn-based real estate promoter, Kim was the third in a family line of brutal dictators who was groomed to lead a pariah state in a hostile world.
Kim was raised to understand every nuance of the deadly serious dictator’s game and protect his country’s interests in the world. As the leader of a tiny nation facing the greatest power, he sought the greatest possible leverage by going all-in on nuclear weapons development. As an astute observer of Trump’s psychology, he recognized the president’s insatiable need to look like a great actor on the world stage. He got Trump to travel halfway ’round the world for a private round of poker and then took him for all his chips. For good measure, Trump took it upon himself to trash America’s allies, just to prove he was a tough-guy in advance of the Singapore meeting.
North Korea’s victory was evident in the atmospherics at the summit, where Kim charmed the public by taking an impromptu tour of the city and emerging from his motorcade to the cheers of onlookers. At the meeting itself, North Korea’s flags were lined-up with the Stars and Stripes, and Kim stood as the American president’s equal on the world stage. This was nothing short of a triumph for a murderous despot reviled by much of the world, and it was Trump who nervously reached for Kim’s shoulder to offer affection taps not once, but three times.
Having won the game before it even started, Kim took more from Trump in their meetings. The president agreed to stop joint military exercises with South Korea and accepted, in return, a mere promise of further talks on the North Korean nuclear threat. Human rights were a consideration left for another day.
The end of the summit found Russia and China moving to ease sanctions on North Korea and Trump returning to Washington with little more than his claim to a new friendship with Kim Jong Un. The outcome was consistent with his lifelong record to loudly voiced claims of dealmaking prowess and the kind of middling results that created a string of embarrassing bankruptcies. The depths to which the salesman was willing to go, in pursuit of nothing more than a photo op, show that it’s Kim who knows how to make a deal.Michael D’Antonio is the author of “The Truth About Trump.’’