The president caught the North Koreans — and the world — off-guard when he sent his letter canceling the summit for now. I thought the most interesting line was: “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.” What? Was that just a bewildering Trumpian thought fragment, or a clever way to force the North Koreans to come back to the table they hadn’t really left in the first place? Whatever it was, it worked. North Korea issued a conciliatory statement praising Trump, and now the summit appears to be back on. Trump has somehow flustered the North Koreans, surprised his critics and got the meeting back on track. The president even appears to understand that national security adviser John Bolton is serving him well as the “tough guy.” Speaking at a rally in Nashville on Tuesday, Trump went so far as to say, “Great John Bolton. [The North Koreans] think he’s so nasty and so tough that I have to hold him back.”
Rushing to judgment and presupposing success (or failure) is almost always a recipe for disaster. With Trump’s encouragement, a lot of his supporters got ahead of themselves talking about a Nobel Peace Prize. Many — perhaps even the North Koreans — thought the president appeared too eager for a deal, that he had overreached and given up leverage. For Trump to walk away would be impossible. Until it wasn’t.
With that said, the president could be the world’s worst at setting expectations. Thankfully, experts are coming to Trump’s aid left and right whether he realizes it or not by describing how arduous and difficult any denuclearization effort will be. But it will only work if he lets them. According to scientists at Stanford University, North Korean nuclear disarmament could take as long as 15 years. Trump needs to broadcast that whatever is agreed to won’t come quickly.
Criticism is a constant in politics. If you do “X” there will be always be a chorus saying you should have done “Y.” Regardless of what he does, Trump will never win over the commentariat class. But even his most steadfast detractors can’t deny the president is in a stronger place now regarding North Korea’s nuclear program than many ever thought possible.