The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A lot of dial tones’: The inside story of how Trump’s North Korea summit fell apart

The Post's Adam Taylor explains what led up to President Trump's May 24 letter to North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and what to expect going forward. (Video: Joyce Lee, Adam Taylor/The Washington Post)

The historic nuclear disarmament summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — the one that Trump thought might earn him the Nobel Peace Prize — crumbled nearly as quickly as it came together, in a sudden and startling decision Thursday morning by the American president.

Inside the White House residence, the first alarm sounded about 10 p.m. Wednesday when national security adviser John Bolton told Trump about North Korea’s public statement threatening a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown” and mocking Vice President Pence as a “political dummy.”

Trump was dismayed by Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric, the same theatrics Trump often deploys against his adversaries. Bolton advised that the threatening language was a very bad sign, and the president told advisers he was concerned Kim was maneuvering to back out of the summit and make Americans look like desperate suitors, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

So Trump called it off first.

The result was a crushing disappointment for a president eager to achieve a peace accord with North Korea that his recent predecessors had failed to reach.

In a snap decision in early March, Trump had agreed to face-to-face talks with Kim, and in the weeks that followed, he was optimistic — even boastful — about what would happen when the two men met June 12 in Singapore.

“It was a legitimate disappointment for him, even though he’s been half-warned it was not going to happen,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, who visited with the president Wednesday in New York.

Trump cancels nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

Senators reacted on May 24 to President Trump’s decision to pull out of a June summit with North Korea. (Video: JM Rieger, Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)

Trump debated summit locations and seriously considered meeting Kim along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. He imagined the pageantry. The White House Communications Agency manufactured a limited run of red, white and blue challenge coins embossed with Trump’s silver visage facing off against Kim’s. He even mused about winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This was to be the ultimate Trump production.

But the president’s imagination collided with the reality of negotiations with a rogue and mistrusted regime. Though Trump is hardly the first president to have sensitive diplomatic entreaties fall short, his played out in full public view, like a soap opera narrated daily from the Oval Office.

Tony Schwartz, who co-authored “The Art of the Deal” with Trump, said the president scotched the summit to save his ego.

“Trump has a morbid fear of being humiliated and shamed,” Schwartz said. “This is showing who’s the biggest and the strongest, so he is exquisitely sensitive to the possibility that he would end up looking weak and small. There is nothing more unacceptable to Trump than that.”

As dawn broke Thursday, senior U.S. officials congregated in the West Wing, and by 7 a.m., they were discussing options over the phone with Trump, who was still in his private chambers. The president arrived at a swift decision to cancel the summit.

A cadre of advisers — including Bolton, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, vice presidential Chief of Staff Nick Ayers, Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin and deputy national security adviser Mira Ricardel — scurried between Ayers’s, Kelly’s and Bolton’s offices, finalizing their plan to break Trump’s news.

Trump dictated a stern yet wistful personal letter to Kim blaming him for “the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.”

The note bore Trumpian hallmarks, including flattering the recipient (he addressed a dictator who has kidnapped Americans and killed his own citizens as “His Excellency”) and boasting about the size of his arsenal.

“You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used,” Trump wrote.

The letter Trump sent to Kim Jong Un canceling the summit, annotated

This behind-the-scenes account of Trump’s decision to cancel the Singapore summit is based on interviews with seven administration officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss a sensitive matter.

Trump’s move caught South Korea and other allies off guard — in part by design, aides said. The president feared the news would leak out if foreign counterparts were alerted, though some in the White House were concerned about insulting allies.

Foreign diplomats got word that the summit was off at the same time as the general public, shortly before 10 a.m., when the White House sent a copy of Trump’s letter to reporters.

At South Korea’s presidential Blue House, officials were blindsided. President Moon Jae-in had just returned home from Washington, where he met with Trump on Tuesday, and Moon’s national security adviser recently put the chance of the summit happening at 99.9 percent.

Reached shortly after Trump’s letter was released, Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said, “We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means.”

Trump made his announcement while several American journalists were in North Korea at the invitation of Kim’s government to witness the apparent destruction of a nuclear test site. In 2009, North Korean soldiers detained two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were charged with illegal entry and held prisoner for five months.

CNN correspondent Will Ripley, who was reporting from the test site this week, recalled being the one to read Trump’s letter to North Korean officials.

“There was just a real sense of shock,” Ripley reported Thursday. “Immediately they got up and left and are now on the phone kind of relaying the news up to the top.”

The moment, Ripley added, was “very awkward and uncomfortable.”

Trump’s final decision was abrupt, but doubts had been growing for several days, with indications all week that the North Koreans were operating in bad faith. The president’s tone turned somewhat skeptical. “We’re going to see what happens,” he told reporters Wednesday. “It could very well happen. But whatever it is, it is.”

Kim and his deputies had blasted Bolton for comments he made April 29 on CBS News in which he said the administration would try to emulate the “Libya model” from 2003 and 2004, in which Moammar Gaddafi relinquished his regime’s nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans believe that agreement led to Gaddafi’s downfall and death in 2011, and a top Kim aide blasted Bolton, whom they generally considered antagonistic from his many years as a foreign policy hawk.

Trump last week sought to reassure Kim that he would remain in power under any nuclear deal with the United States, contradicting Bolton by saying, “The Libya model isn’t the model that we have.”

But on Monday, Pence said in an interview with Fox News that “the Libyan model” will apply to North Korea if Kim does not agree to denuclearize. Aides said Pence’s comments were not an effort to sabotage the deal, saying that he and Trump spoke before the Fox interview and that the vice president reiterated points Trump had previously made.

Still, Pence’s Libya analogy struck a nerve in Pyongyang. When North Korea’s government unleashed its Wednesday torrent of invective against the Trump administration, an aide close to Kim called Pence a “political dummy” who made “ignorant and stupid remarks.”

Trump offers reassurance that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un would remain in power under nuclear deal

Meanwhile, U.S. officials had grown concerned that Kim’s deputies had gone silent on preparations for the summit. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who traveled twice to North Korea and was regarded inside the Trump administration as the good cop to Bolton’s enforcer — blamed Pyongyang for the breakdown in communication in recent days.

The United States “received no response to our inquiries from them,” Pompeo told a Senate panel Thursday. “We got a lot of dial tones.”

U.S. officials were further frustrated last week when a senior North Korean delegation failed to show up for a planning meeting in Singapore, leaving a team led by Hagin in the island country with little to do.

“They waited, and they waited,” a senior White House official said. “The North Koreans never showed up. The North Koreans didn’t tell us anything. They simply stood us up.”

Trump suspected that Chinese President Xi Jinping may have had something to do with Kim’s turnabout, musing this week about their meeting this month.

“When Kim Jong Un had the meeting with President Xi, in China, the second meeting . . . I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong Un,” Trump said Tuesday, with Moon at his side. “I don’t like that. I don’t like it from the standpoint of China. Now, I hope that’s not true, because I have a great relationship with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He likes me. I like him.”

Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration national security official who has worked on North Korea issues, said Trump was naive.

“He fails to understand that while he might have a good rapport with a head of state, that head of state will act based on his national interests and not based on his personal feelings,” Farkas said.

An unpredictable president changes the North Korea script

Some Trump administration officials worried about “losing the upper hand” if Kim strung Trump along and then bailed on the meeting, according to a second senior White House official.

Aides began telling Trump last week that he should be prepared for the summit not to happen and that it might take several tries before he actually meets Kim face to face. Tempering the president’s enthusiasm was partially driven by Bolton, as well as by some congressional allies.

“Here’s what I told the president: North Koreans are going to try to wait you out,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said. “They’re going to nickel and dime you. They’re going to delay. They’re going to obfuscate. They are going to make commitments and pull them back.”

Despite the warning signs, Trump remained hopeful that the summit would go on as he had imagined. Aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, Trump told passengers that he believed Kim was ready to make a deal and that enough “screws” had been put on him to bring him to the negotiating table in Singapore, according to Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who flew with Trump.

“If I had to bet right now, he had no intention of calling it off,” King said. “He was throwing out different ideas — nothing dramatic, but obviously thinking through what they were going to be doing over the next few days to get ready and make plans for the summit.”

For Trump, the cancellation brings one silver lining — at least in the eyes of his lawyer. Giuliani said the president would now be free to focus on whether to sit for an interview with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team in the Russia investigation.

Still, Giuliani added, he believes Trump is more likely to eventually sit down across from Kim than Mueller.

“I think it is more inevitable than a Mueller interview,” Giuliani said. “At least they’re not going to try to trap him into Korean perjury.”

Carol D. Leonnig, Seung Min Kim and John Hudson in Washington, Anne Gearan in Chicago and Anna Fifield in Tokyo contributed to this report.