The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The White House sounds as if it might have cold feet about Trump meeting Kim Jong Un

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says President Trump won’t meet with Kim Jong Un unless North Korea takes “actions” toward denuclearization. (Video: Reuters)

This post has been updated to reflect a new anonymous White House comment.

Apparently President Trump's commitment to meet with Kim Jong Un was to be taken seriously, not necessarily literally.

South Korean officials said Thursday night at the White House that Trump “said he would meet Kim Jong Un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.” The White House followed that up with a statement saying the president “will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined.”

So invitation accepted, right? Just awaiting the details, it seems.

Except ... maybe not. Appearing at the daily White House briefing Friday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested the meeting was not a done deal. She seemed to retroactively attach denuclearization preconditions to the whole thing.

“The president will not have the meeting without seeing concrete steps and concrete actions take place by North Korea,” Sanders said, specifically mentioning denuclearization. “Look, they’ve got to follow through on the promises they’ve made.”

But the original agreement, as outlined by the South Koreans, was only that Kim would halt nuclear and missile tests while talks were underway. Until Friday, there was no indication it had to scale back its program beforehand. The South Koreans said Kim was “committed to denuclearization,” but they did not say he would denuclearize before the meeting as a precondition.

Nor did the White House's statement attach this caveat to the meeting. Here is the full statement from Sanders on Thursday night:

President Trump greatly appreciates the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon. He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un at a place and time to be determined. We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.

Update: An unnamed White House official tells the Wall Street Journal's Michael C. Bender that the meeting has still been accepted, whatever that means.

Consider this the latest piece of evidence that the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and the leader of North Korea is another example of Trump acting first and his staff sorting it out later.

On Thursday night, it was pretty evident this came out of nowhere. Trump had not even been scheduled to meet with the South Korean officials, but soon there was an agreement reached to talk with Kim. The White House did not immediately confirm the news, though, and diplomats were left scrambling to respond to the unplanned announcement.

The news also seemed to contradict what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said earlier in the day. “In terms of direct talks with the United States — and you asked negotiations, and we’re a long ways from negotiations,” he said, adding: “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.”

It's possible Sanders on Friday was simply trying to fight back against critics' arguments that this was a giveaway to the North Korean regime — that it was a foolhardy granting of the Kim regime's decades-long wish to secure an audience with a U.S. president, with little in return.

But the comments also give the White House an option they did not seem to reserve Thursday. The “concrete steps and concrete actions” are so undefined right now — and Sanders declined to detail them — that they could serve as a ready-made excuse to pull out of the whole thing.