It was no surprise that President Trump caught his White House off guard last week when he accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s invitation to a summit between the two leaders. Just hours prior, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said the two countries were “a long ways from negotiations.” So it was to be expected that White House officials would struggle in the immediate aftermath to provide details about the summit. But with the shock worn off now, the president’s team remarkably has no plan for North Korea. For that, there’s no excuse.
On ABC News’s “This Week” on Sunday, White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah was asked, “Can you tell us anything more about when or where this meeting is going to happen?” After first ducking the question, he admitted that he couldn’t. The pattern repeated itself again and again; Shah couldn’t say whether Trump would discuss human rights, whether there would be any additional conditions for the meeting and whether the meeting would happen at all in the end.
Other White House officials similarly struggled Sunday morning. Neither CIA Director Mike Pompeo nor Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could explain why Trump, who just six months ago tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with” Kim, now would jump at the chance for negotiations. Pompeo claimed on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “we have gotten more than any previous administration, an agreement to not continue testing nuclear weapons and their missile program.” Pompeo is right that this would be a real accomplishment — if it were true. As the New York Times’s David Sanger pointed out later on the same show, the Clinton administration reached a similar agreement in 1994 — a deal North Korea later violated.
A key official like Pompeo making such a basic error of fact and White House staffers’ struggling to answer basic questions would be worrisome under any presidency, but doubly so under Trump. With the president so unconcerned about details, the failings of his staff become magnified. A normal presidency is incredibly dependent upon the judgment of the person in the Oval Office — to appoint the right people to posts of tremendous responsibility and to make the correct decisions based on their staffers’ input. In this presidency, where the president embraces chaos and spurns experts, the incompetence of those around him is magnified.
To be clear, it would not have been hard in a normal White House to quickly develop a credible plan for a summit. North Korea’s leaders have been trying to meet with U.S. presidents for decades — there are dozens of experts who have could quickly come up with a framework for such a meeting. You could develop a more credible plan in a few hours on Google than the Trump administration has offered after several days. As for getting the president to sign off on it, foreign diplomats have figured out how to flatter the president to agree to new ideas; there’s no reason his staff couldn’t do the same. But there are few people in the White House (and fewer every month) competent enough to handle this chaos. Unfortunately for the rest of us, damage from their mistakes will extend far beyond the Oval Office.