For some, the big headline from President Trump's Q&A with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday was that Trump said his meeting with Kim Jong Un might never happen.
I would argue the bigger headline is that Trump kept suggesting it could be postponed.
Those might sound similar, but there is a key difference. When the topic was first broached, Trump said he would not have the meeting if certain conditions are not met. Then, before he broached canceling the meeting altogether, he seemed to suggest that maybe it could be delayed from its current date of June 12 instead. “If it doesn't happen, maybe it will happen later,” he said. “Maybe it will happen at a different time. But we will see. But we are talking.”
He returned to that prospect later: “That doesn’t mean it won't work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12th. But there's a good chance that we'll have the meeting.”
Why is that significant? It suggests Trump is reluctant to let this go. It suggests he is pretty deeply invested in this. He could hold a hard line at North Korea agreeing to certain things by June 12 if Kim wants to talk, but instead he seems to be trying to buy some time by floating a date change. This is the accelerated schedule to which he agreed, but now it appears to be an obstacle, and Trump cannot just let it be a hard deadline.
Elsewhere in his comments, Trump also seemed to be trying to put a good spin on things. Despite Kim's recent comments rejecting complete denuclearization, Trump said he thought Kim is still “serious” about potentially doing just that.
“I do think he's serious. I think he would like to see that happen,” Trump said. “At the same time, he's going into a future that's different from what they've had. But I think he's absolutely very serious.”
You could forgive Trump for feeling invested in this. North Korea is the rare issue on which he has positive approval ratings. It has got some, including Moon, talking about a Nobel Peace Prize for Trump. It could serve as vindication for Trump's much-criticized rhetoric about inflicting “fire and fury” on North Korea and “totally destroying” the country. If he were able to broker a peace plan that has eluded the world for decades, it would be a legacy-making event.
Trump has assured us repeatedly he is not going to cut just any deal because he wants to cut some kind of deal, and he reiterated that Tuesday. But we have also seen a potential softening of the Trump administration's demand that North Korea turn over its nuclear weapons. Now Trump seems to be attempting to salvage the whole thing in the face of some pretty difficult circumstances. South Korea has said it is 99.9 percent sure the meeting will still go off, the White House sounds significantly less certain, and Trump seems to want to believe it will take place.
At some point in this process, Trump will have to start drawing some hard lines. Apparently he is not doing it when it comes to the date of the meeting and on conditions being met by then. That suggests he may not drive such a hard bargain going forward.