President Trump announced two weeks ago that he would hold an unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. On Tuesday, Trump reminded us just how awry that meeting could go.
The Washington Post is reporting that Trump was given key talking points for his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday and that he disregarded just about all of them. He was not supposed to congratulate Putin on his allegedly unfair and undemocratic reelection win — his notes even had “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” in all caps — and yet he did. And he was supposed to condemn Russia’s alleged role in the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain, and yet he did not.
The episode crystallizes Trump’s tendency to eschew basically any expert guidance — even on issues of huge import. That certainly has implications for U.S. relations with Russia and for efforts to combat Russian interference in U.S. elections. On the latter, Trump has declined to take a harsh tone and has even suggested that he believes Putin’s denials. But, more immediately, it has huge implications for Trump’s impending meeting with Kim.
Trump’s penchant for off-the-cuff diplomacy and policymaking has been on full display during his presidency. High-profile meetings with nuclear-weapon-wielding dictators with questionable states of mind, though, tend to require intensive preparation and adherence to scripts. Experts generally tell you that you should go into such meetings knowing how they will turn out, one way or another. Failure to anticipate and successfully guide the conversation could have dire consequences, both from propagandistic and militaristic standpoints.
As I wrote when the Kim meeting was announced:
None of that describes how Trump has conducted himself as president; he has usually been the antithesis of all that. On issue after issue, whether immigration or guns or that Oval Office meeting with Russian leaders, he has proved he can't stay on script. In fact, he often doesn't seem to bother even studying the script. Trump regularly appears unfamiliar with the policies he's discussing, changes his mind within days or even hours, and makes decisions that haven't been thoroughly vetted.
Given that this whole process started with Trump’s apparently impromptu decision to grant Kim a meeting, it doesn’t seem likely Trump is planning to bring a more studied and judicious approach to it. And that will give those charged with preparing him for the meeting weeks and weeks of heartburn.
The poisoning of former Russia spy Sergei Skripal and his adult daughter, Yulia, is a particularly pregnant omission from Trump’s call. Britain has concluded that Russia was at least complicit in the attack — which mirrors the poisoning of another ex-Russian agent in Britain, in 2006 — and the United States has joined France and Germany in agreeing with that conclusion. The situation has led to perhaps the most severe British sanctions on Russia since the Cold War.
But given that Trump has essentially accepted Putin’s denials of interference in the 2016 election, there is little guarantee that he will actually press Putin on the Skripal poisoning. Trump’s rhetoric has been pretty measured thus far, and he has apparently ignored his national security team’s desire to get him to broach the topic directly with Putin. As with the conversation about Russian interference, it seems Trump simply doesn’t want to press Putin in the way those around him wish he would, and he apparently can’t be persuaded to abide by even a very basic strategy.
There is basically no reason to believe that he wouldn't freelance in a similar way with Kim — whether because of chutzpah or a complete inability to stay disciplined. And whatever hope there might be for a breakthrough from the meeting with Kim, this should severely temper everyone's expectations.