“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg News in a Monday interview. “If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”
The president acknowledged that his willingness to meet with a dictator known for oppressing his people — comments that are sure to spark an outcry from everyone from diplomats to the human rights community — was more than a little unconventional.
“Most political people would never say that,” Trump said in the Bloomberg News interview, “but I’m telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”
In his daily news briefing Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer stressed that Trump said he would only meet with Kim “under the right circumstances.”
“We've got to see their provocative behavior ratchet down immediately,” Spicer said. “There's a lot of conditions that I think would have to happen with respect to its behavior and to show signs of good faith. Clearly, conditions are not there right now.”
Asked about the extrajudicial killings of drug users, many of them poor, on Duterte's watch, Spicer said, “There's a human rights component that goes into all of this,” but added, “This isn't a simple yes-or-no kind of situation.”
“You've got a country, in North Korea, that possesses a nuclear weapon and is looking for the appropriate delivery system to potentially do harm,” he said. “I think the president recognizes that the number one priority is the protection of our people, the safety of our people and the safety of the people in the region, and so it's not just a question of either-or. It's a question of priorities and balance.”
While the White House may not always provide a readout of Trump's private meetings that are critical of world leaders, Spicer added, the conversations he has and the relationships he builds in private may strike a different tenor, part of the president's effort to build “an effective coalition” around the globe.
The president has a history of praising, and even seeming to admire, the strongmen dictators who more typically earn international condemnation than grudging respect. His relationship with and seeming fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin dogged his campaign and now continues to distract in his administration.
And Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at the White House last month, despite Sissi being barred from the White House under President Barack Obama, after coming to power through a military takeover.
Asked in the daily briefing about the administration's perspective on a possible meeting with Duterte, Spicer cast it as a strategic move to help deal with the escalating situation in North Korea.
“I think it is an opportunity for us to work with countries in that region that can help play a role in diplomatically and economically isolating North Korea,” Spicer said. “And, frankly, the national interests of the United States, the safety of our people and the safety of people in the region, are the number one priorities of the president.”
Spicer did add, however, that Trump was likely aware of the controversy surrounding Duterte and his abysmal record on human rights, when he extended an invitation to visit the White House. “The president gets fully briefed on the leaders that he's speaking to, obviously,” he said. “But the number one concern of this president is to make sure we do everything we can to protect our people, and specifically to economically and diplomatically isolate North Korea.”
For all the talk Monday on isolating North Korea, the president has also praised Kim before. In an interview with CBS's “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Trump said Kim was “a pretty smart cookie” because “at a very young age, he was able to assume power.”
“A lot of people, I'm sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else,” Trump said on the Sunday show. “And he was able to do it. So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie.”
Kim had his uncle executed in 2013. He is also widely believed to have had his half-brother assassinated in February.
Spicer defended Trump's “smart cookie” comment Monday, echoing the president's praise for Kim's ability to fend off threats to his totalitarian regime.
“He assumed power at a young age when his father passed away, and there was a lot of potential threats that could have come his way, and he's obviously managed to lead a country forward despite the obvious concerns that we and so many other people have,” Spicer said. “You know, he is a young person to be leading a country with nuclear weapons.”
During the campaign, Trump also expressed a willingness to meet with Kim should he visit the United States, saying, “What the hell is wrong with speaking?”
“I wouldn't go there, that I can tell you,” Trump said at a campaign rally in June. “If he came here, I'd accept him. But I wouldn't give him a state dinner like we do for China and all these other people that rip us off.”
Earlier, in a May 2016 interview with Reuters, Trump was similarly open-minded toward establishing direct lines of communication with the reclusive leader. “I would speak to him, I would have no problem speaking to him,” Trump said at the time.
North Korean state media later gave Trump an unofficial endorsement.
No recent sitting American president has spoken directly with the Kim family leadership, although Bill Clinton went to North Korea and met with then-leader Kim Jong Il in 2009, when Clinton was already a former president. Then-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs denied reports that Clinton carried a message from then-President Barack Obama.
The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and relies on Sweden to be an intermediary in diplomatic issues, such as negotiations over Americans detained in the country. The Clinton administration sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to North Korea in 2000, which remains the diplomatic high-water mark in decades of troubled relations. The Korean War is still officially ongoing — there has never been a peace deal — and South Korea is a bedrock U.S. ally.
The George W. Bush administration held extensive direct talks with North Korean representatives over its nuclear program, but talks fell apart before the point at which a conversation or face-to-face meeting between Bush and Kim Jong Il might have been possible. In 2007, Bush did take the unprecedented step of writing a personal letter to the North Korean leader, whom he addressed as “Dear Mr. Chairman.” Bush told Kim that normal diplomatic relations might be possible if North Korea came fully clean about its nuclear weapons program and then eradicated them.
North Korean leaders have sought visits from high-level U.S. officials to win release of detained Americans. In addition to Clinton, who helped free two American journalists, former basketball star Dennis Rodman visited in 2013 and later took credit for helping to free American Kenneth Bae.
Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson also has traveled on diplomatic missions to North Korea several times, and has sought the release of current detainee Otto Warmbier of Ohio.