There are times when it appears that President Trump is deliberately obtuse. At a news conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, for example, Trump rejected the rather obvious premise that Kim achieved a kind of public-relations victory simply by getting an audience with the president of the United States.
Trump understands optics and almost certainly recognized what the meeting in Singapore meant for Kim's global standing, yet the president was so determined to project total command over the situation that he would not make a public concession.
So it was refreshing to see Trump offer another Kim-related admission during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity that aired Tuesday night. Hannity asked Trump about the intense rhetoric he employed in the year before tensions eased and the summit came together. Trump threatened “fire and fury,” nicknamed Kim “Little Rocket Man” and boasted on Twitter that his “nuclear button” is “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim's.
“I think without the rhetoric, we wouldn't have been here,” Trump told Hannity in Singapore. “I really believe that. You know, we did sanctions and all of the things that you would do. But I think without the rhetoric — you know, other administrations, I don't want to get specific on that, but they had a policy of silence. If [North Korea] said something very bad — very threatening and horrible — just don't answer. That's not the answer. That's not what you have to do.
“So, I think, the rhetoric — I hated to do it. Sometimes I felt foolish doing it. But we had no choice.”
“So, strategically, you're doing it?” Hannity asked.
“Well, yes,” Trump replied. “I mean — but I think he gained respect. You know, he's a strong guy.”
Trump's acknowledgment that he “felt foolish” when taunting Kim was a rare nod to the validity of critics' views. At the height of last year's feud between “Little Rocket Man” and the “dotard” (Kim's name for Trump), many foreign policy experts and political commentators fretted that high-stakes diplomacy had devolved into schoolyard insults.
With his comments to Hannity, Trump effectively said that he gets why some observers doubted his approach. The president himself apparently felt silly, at the time.
But Trump's contention is that he knew what he was doing all along — that the only way to earn Kim's respect was through rhetorical force, however reckless or juvenile it might have appeared.
It is hard to know whether Trump's words are what brought Kim to the table. Alternative explanations include crippling sanctions and the advancement of North Korea's nuclear program to a stage where Kim believed he would be taken seriously. Perhaps multiple factors contributed to the summit.
But Trump clearly feels that his rhetoric has been vindicated, and he is now willing to share a more humble feeling — foolishness — in a way that he seldom does.