It came out of nowhere. In a brief and impromptu visit to the White House briefing room late Thursday afternoon, President Trump previewed a major announcement that night from South Korean leaders. Shortly after 7 p.m., those leaders said Trump had agreed to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Then, after an unexplained delay, the White House itself confirmed it.
But just how much thought actually went into all this?
From the outside, the answer would appear to be not much — or at least not near as much as those around him would like. And it wasn't just the lack of a heads-up or the odd rollout. (For example: Why on earth did the South Koreans announce this?) It was also some comments delivered mere hours before by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Kim's openness to the meeting had been reported earlier this week, but on Thursday morning Tillerson suggested such an agreement was a way off. Here's what he said during a news conference with the Ethiopian foreign minister:
In terms of direct talks with the United States — and you asked negotiations, and we’re a long ways from negotiations. I think it’s — we just need to be very clear-eyed and realistic about it. I think the first step — and I’ve said this before — is to have talks, have some kind of talks about talks. Because I don’t know yet, until we are able to meet ourselves face to face with representatives of North Korea, whether the conditions are right to even begin thinking about negotiations. And that’s kind of the current state of play.
So within a span of less than 12 hours, the Trump administration went from “we're a long ways from negotiations” to “we're negotiating at the presidential level.” Tillerson said they needed to decide whether to “even begin thinking about negotiations,” but now they're planning what would be the first-ever summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader.
Tillerson and the White House staff weren't the only ones who seemed unprepared for and unaware of the major announcement; so was the rest of the State Department, which is now put in the position of having to assemble a team to support Trump in his newly announced summit with Kim. The South Korean officials said that the meeting would be held “by May,” though the White House notably gave no timeline.
This would hardly be the first time Trump launched into something without much apparent diligence and with an apparent disregard for the complicated details of bureaucracy. Just last week, Trump pretty clearly got out ahead of a planned announcement on new steel and aluminum tariffs, sending everyone around him scrambling over the controversial decision. Earlier in his presidency, he did this with banning transgender soldiers, his travel ban and declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency.
None of those happened exactly as Trump first announced them, and it seems possible Trump will renegotiate with himself on his decision to meet with Kim. But this is serious foreign policy involving an antagonistic nuclear power. And Trump just granted the North Korean regime something it had been seeking for decades and had never received: An audience with a sitting president. There are reasons that hasn't just been given away in the past.
Tillerson recognized those reasons in his comments Thursday morning. Then Trump did exactly what Tillerson had suggested wouldn't yet be prudent.