But Trump has now taken things a step further — much further — saying he would be “honored” to meet with Kim.
First Trump told Reuters on Friday: “He's 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want, but that is not easy — especially at that age.” Trump then clarified: “I'm not giving him credit or not giving him credit; I'm just saying that's a very hard thing to do.” (Side note: This is the very definition of giving credit.)
Then Trump added to CBS News this weekend: “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. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie.” (Side note: Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed, which is certainly one way to retain power.)
And finally, in a just-published interview with Bloomberg, Trump cuts to the chase: He wants to talk — if the conditions are right.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely,” Trump said, adding: “I would be honored to do it.”
And now we know the real reason Trump has been saying all those nice things. Combined with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floating the idea of diplomacy last week, it's clear what Trump is getting at here: He wants to cut a deal.
Some immediately compared Trump's posture here to former president Barack Obama saying in 2008 that he was open to negotiating with Iran without preconditions. It's not quite the same thing, though, as Trump emphasized — repeatedly — that there very much needs to be preconditions.
The part of Trump's comments that should raise eyebrows are the ones where he says not only that he would meet with Kim, but that he would be “honored” to do so. It's one thing to talk with an adversarial foreign leader; it's another to lend them the legitimacy of saying you, the president of the United States, would be honored to meet them.
Kim consolidated power by executing not just his uncle, but another estimated 140 or so senior officials in the North Korean government. Most recently, he is believed to be behind the assassination of his half brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia. The power that Trump credits him for holding on to has been held on to via the use of brute force and even the starvation of his own people.
Imagine if President Barack Obama had said he would be “honored” to meet with then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in 2008. The feeding frenzy would have been swift, and it would have been led by Republicans.
Trump's own history of comments about authoritarian leaders make this all something less than shocking. He has praised the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists without worrying about due process. He said the world would be "100 percent” better with Moammar Gaddafi in charge of Libya. He has of course praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. He retweeted a Mussolini quote. He congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently on growing his presidential powers. And he gave Egyptian President President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi the thumbs-up in a shift in U.S. policy.
The New York Times's Glenn Thrush asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday if Trump has "a thing with these totalitarian leaders?" Spoiler alert: He does. And it's not even subtle.
Spicer responded to such questions by saying Kim is "still the head of state, so there is a diplomatic piece to this.” Which, fine. But there is also a piece about legitimizing brutal tyrants and their methods.
Trump's recent comments about Kim actually echo what he said in Iowa in January 2016 , when he pointed more directly to the North Korean leader killing his political opponents.
“It's incredible,” Trump said. “He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean this guy doesn't play games. And we can't play games with him.”
In other words, it's clear Trump knows how Kim has stayed in power. And even considering his past praise of authoritarians, his decision to say Kim is worthy of “honor” and is a “smart cookie” suggests Trump has more admiration for authoritarians even than he lets on.