Senate Democrats may not have a lot of power, but even when you’re in the minority you never lose the power to troll. So yesterday, they released a set of demands they say President Trump has to fulfill in any agreement he makes with North Korea.
Among those demands: The agreement must completely remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons, provide for unlimited inspections anywhere in the country and be permanent.
Why is that a troll? Because the last two just happen to be the main criticisms Republicans make of the Iran nuclear deal: that it is not permanent, and there are some restrictions on inspections. So how can Republicans disagree?
The answer is that of course they can, because they are limitlessly flexible. Trump could sign exactly the same deal with North Korea that Barack Obama signed with Iran, and Republicans would hail it as the most brilliant piece of diplomacy in human history. But the Democrats’ demands do highlight an important question: How weak of a deal will Trump accept with North Korea and still call it a victory?
As far as we know, there’s still going to be a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, just a week from now. President Trump agreed to it, then changed his mind and canceled it, then changed his mind again and un-canceled it. But more than the question of whether it would take place at all, he has shifted on what his actual expectations are.
When Trump first agreed to a summit with Kim — itself a huge concession that previous presidents had been unwilling to grant and one that Trump aides are hilariously trying to spin as a concession by the North Koreans — Trump’s position was that they had to agree to full denuclearization. He saw visions of the Nobel Peace Prize dancing in his head as he negotiated a Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, millions chanting his name in gratitude as the specter of a fiery death was lifted from their heads.
Somewhere along the way, Trump realized that the North Koreans weren’t going to agree to that, certainly not as a starting point. So he has backtracked, now saying that the summit is just the beginning of a process. In fact, when he spoke to reporters on Friday after a meeting with the North Korean vice chairman, he used the word “process” nine times:
“And again, it’s a process. It doesn’t go — we’re not going to sign a — we’re not going to go in and sign something on June 12th and we never were. We’re going to start a process. And I told them today, ‘Take your time. We can go fast. We can go slowly.’ But I think they’d like to see something happen. And if we can work that out, that will be good. But the process will begin on June 12th in Singapore.”
Talk about lowered expectations.
As CNN reported, national security adviser John Bolton, who would like to start bombing North Korea by the end of business today if possible, was shut out of that meeting, because “the voices advocating most forcefully to tighten the noose on Pyongyang have been sidelined as Trump seeks out a history-making handshake.” That’s a good thing, but it does demonstrate how important that handshake is for the president, no matter what any agreement does or does not contain.
As we look forward to the summit, we have to remember this important fact: Donald Trump is a terrible negotiator. If you take a look at Trump’s career you see a long series of disastrous deals and bungled negotiations, driven by Trump’s foolishness and arrogance. His time as president has only highlighted the many ways in which he completely misunderstands negotiation and hasn’t been able to get what he wants. (You may have noticed, for instance, that Mexico is not paying for that wall.)
Trump doesn’t care about important details. He doesn’t bother to understand the person across from him, when knowing what that person wants, where their limits are and what forces are pushing on them will be vital to a successful outcome. He thinks every negotiation is zero-sum, and if he isn’t scamming the other person, that means he’s getting scammed.
So what happens when Trump presses Kim to give up all of his nuclear weapons and Kim just refuses? Given that Kim plainly believes that his possession of those weapons is the ultimate guarantee of his power and his life, this is not just possible but likely. What then?
To judge by the way he has talked in the past few days, there’s a good chance that Trump will look for something else he can call a victory. Perhaps Kim will accept some new limits on the weapons program (while keeping the existing weapons), or perhaps, as Trump discussed last week, the North and South could agree to officially end the Korean War, which is technically still going on (“Historically, it’s very important,” Trump said).
To be clear, one of those outcomes wouldn’t be a bad thing, even if an end to the Korean War doesn’t change the nuclear situation one bit. It would be hard to argue that there’s almost nothing we can offer Kim that will induce him to give up his nuclear weapons (as I and others have done), then turn around and criticize Trump if he doesn’t get Kim to agree to give up the weapons.
But if that’s what happens, what we can criticize is Trump’s inevitable proclamation that it’s the greatest deal in history and he did what no other president could possibly have done. He has moved the goalposts so many times already that we shouldn’t be gullible when he tries to move them again.