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An unpredictable president changes the North Korea script

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 abrupt cancellation of the scheduled summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un raises the obvious question beyond the future of relations between the two countries. That is, with this president, can there ever be certainty about anything?

That’s not to say that the president was wrong to call off the summit meeting tentatively scheduled for June 12 in Singapore. Given North Korea’s history, it’s likely that that country bears heavy responsibility for the sudden change in plans.

Much about the advance preparations remains cloudy, and the provocative rhetoric from North Korea in recent days obviously contributed to doubts about its willingness to discuss in good faith getting rid of its nuclear weapons and capability. Perhaps the climate was bad enough that canceling, for now at least, was the wisest course.

But this episode speaks to the larger issue endemic to the current administration, which is the on-again, off-again style of leadership exhibited by the president on issues across the board, most recently in calling off a trade war with China after multiple threats and loose talk about how winning trade wars is easy.

President Trump cancels summit with North Korea

From the time of his candidacy, Trump insisted that being unpredictable was a central attribute of his approach to problems and negotiations. Unpredictability can be an asset if it leads to genuine progress and constructive outcomes. Unpredictability for the sake of unpredictability leads nowhere. So far, his unpredictability has produced few of the dividends he often promises.

The proposed summit between Trump and the North Korean dictator always seemed upside down — a top-down start to what would inevitability be a complex, delicate and enormously difficult negotiation. To Trump, the appeal of the Trump-Kim summit seemed obvious. For a president who thinks in the imagery of reality TV and loves to talk about television ratings, could there be anything bigger than this summit for focusing the world’s attention on the leader of the United States?

But those who have been through these kinds of negotiations always questioned the haste with which the president accepted the offer from the North Koreans for a face-to-face meeting with a leader with whom he had sparred for months. He had derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened North Korea with the fire and fury of nuclear annihilation. The abrupt shift to personal diplomacy, which caught some of his advisers off guard, seemed too much made-for-TV and not enough thought-out strategy to provide a recipe for success.

The president appeared to take at face value that the North Korean leader was ready to sign away his nuclear arsenal — but in return for what was unclear. Trump promised economic investment and riches in return, though survival has long been at the core of what Kim and his predecessors have made their most important priority. Could the president have been surprised that the road to the summit suddenly turned steeper and rockier than he had made it seem when he first announced the plan?

What role his new foreign policy team played in the evolution from acceptance to cancellation also is still not fully understood. National security adviser John Bolton had long ago made clear his feeling about the North Koreans, and it was one of hostility toward a regime whose word was never particularly trustworthy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who made the transition from the CIA to Foggy Bottom as the summitry was in process, is the one administration official who spent time with the North Korean leader. How much did he and Bolton see eye to eye as the preparations got underway?

Perhaps this will prove to have been skillful diplomatic maneuvering by the president, but that can’t be known at this time. What is known is that this is not the first time the president has spoken extravagantly about his desire to solve a problem, only to demonstrate later that either his words were not genuine or that his positions are so ungrounded that he can change his mind at any moment.

Trade is one glaring example of how the president has operated. He has been at different points — and sometimes almost in the same moment — a trade hawk and a trade pussycat. He has set in motion all manner of trade changes, from pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership to demanding a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement to calling for tariffs on steel and aluminum to threatening tariffs on imported autos.

He has proved to be an unsteady negotiator who has only modest achievements, achievements that fall far short of the promises he made to workers during the campaign and later. His approach on NAFTA has damaged relations with Mexico, frustrated Canada and caused some heartburn among U.S. businesses. On TPP, he for a moment mulled rejoining the deal, but the rest of the nations have moved on, signing an accord without the United States.

U.S. and North Korean leaders have history of sharp-tongued exchanges

On trade with China, the president sent his fractious team there, and when they failed to produce progress, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared a halt to the war. Others saw it, for now at least, as a white flag of surrender. In early March, Trump tweeted: “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win.” A few days ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted in part, “Sadly #China is out-negotiating the administration & winning the trade talks right now.”

Immigration is another example of the difficulty of knowing where the president is at any given moment. The history of his negotiations with congressional Democrats and Republicans on the issue of the “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children — and the border wall that he wants to build are textbook examples of how difficult it is to pin him down.

He has talked optimistically about trying to make a deal and about his desire to provide dreamers with a path to citizenship. He told members of Congress to work out something and bring it to him. When they did, he balked. That was months ago, and since then he has frequently expressed a desire to make a deal but has taken no concrete steps to find a way to resolve the differences.

His style is to keep everything open. The summit with North Korea’s Kim will happen, he kept saying all month, but with his next breath said it might not. On Thursday, he took the opposite approach. The summit is off, he said, but perhaps it can be scheduled later.

Presumably if it is rescheduled, it will not be before much more preparatory work is done, the kind of work that did not take place before Trump first agreed to the summit. That sounds a lot like traditional diplomacy and traditional leadership, which the president has made clear he believes has been a failure. He is still trying to prove that the alternative approach will be more successful.