PANMUNJOM, Korea — June 30, 2019, was one of the most historic days of Donald Trump’s presidency. But he was still thinking about his press coverage.
It was a personal milestone for Trump, who touched down on the heavily fortified demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas for the first time as his own administration tries to forge a landmark deal to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.
But Trump also did what no other sitting U.S. president had done: He crossed over onto North Korean soil, a move Trump viewed as a goodwill gesture to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he lavished with warm pleasantries and whose friendship he continued to cultivate.
Yet leading up to that historic moment Sunday at the Inter-Korean House of Freedom in the demilitarized zone, Trump was focused on what the headlines could have been if it all went awry and his personal invitation to Kim went unreturned.
“Of course I thought of that,” Trump said at a news conference one day prior in Osaka, Japan, at the conclusion of the annual Group of 20 summit. “Because I know if he didn’t, everybody is going to say, ‘Oh, he was stood up by Chairman Kim.’ No, I understood that.”
It was part of a stream of complaints about media coverage in recent days by Trump, even as he showered compliments on repressive leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. Like Kim, both have taken brutal steps to ensure there is no free press in their countries.
When Trump’s encounter with Kim actually occurred Sunday, hands were shaken and the two leaders sat down inside the House of Freedom. A pleased Trump remarked that Kim “made us both look good” by meeting Trump after he extended the invitation in a surprise tweet Saturday in Osaka.
In classic Trumpian fashion, the nation’s first reality-show president built up the suspense of his third meeting with Kim like a seasoned television producer — dropping hints throughout the day that made it clear to the journalists with him that a Kim encounter later that day was inevitable.
But at several of the stops, Trump also pushed back at a narrative he clearly felt was unfair: His diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang that began with the Singapore summit one year ago had done nothing to improve the tense state of relations between the United States and North Korea.
“A lot of progress has been made,” Trump said before meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at his Blue House residence in Seoul. “I watched some of the news — fake news; it’s only fake news — and they said, ‘Well, what’s been done?’ Well, it’s like the difference between day and night.”
And at a Blue House news conference alongside Moon, Trump again seemed to have a rebuttal prepared to a query that was obvious to the journalists following him: What progress, exactly, had been made since failed talks in Hanoi in February?
“You know, when sometimes the media will say, ‘Gee, what’s happened?’ Well, they know what’s happened,” Trump responded to the question that, at that point, hadn’t been asked. “What’s happened is, there was nuclear testing, there was ballistic missile testing. They had hostages of ours, as you know. Very tough situation.”
Trump continued: “So I hate to hear the media, you know, give false information to the public when they say, ‘Oh, what’s been done?’ What’s been done? A lot has been done.”
That didn’t stop the U.S. journalists from pressing the issue.
“Nothing has substantively changed since Hanoi,” noted Bloomberg News’s Margaret Talev, the sole American journalist granted a question at the Blue House news conference. “North Korea has tested short-range missiles. Why does Kim Jong Un deserve this moment?”
Trump insisted there have been tremendous strides.
“Only the fake news says that they weren’t,” the U.S. president shot back.
His sense that he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved followed him in the Marine One ride to the DMZ. Trump viewed North Korean lands from Observation Point Ouellette — a point commanded by the United Nations along the DMZ — warmly greeted dozens of U.S. and South Korean troops and received a gift in return: a black golf jacket, to wear at his golf clubs.
At the observation deck, a South Korean soldier, whose remarks were out of the earshot of journalists, relayed something to Trump that clearly pleased him.
“Tell them that,” Trump told the soldier, referring to the press. “Tell them that.”
He then spoke directly to reporters, in case the point he was attempting to make wasn’t clear.
Trump said that the area used to be “very dangerous” but that it had changed since Singapore.
“After our first summit, all of the danger went away,” the president insisted. He added, “I say that for the press. They have no appreciation for what is being done. None.”
This all unfolded on a chaotic day for the White House staff and the U.S. press corps.
As American journalists attempted to enter the House of Freedom for the previously unannounced sit-down between Trump and Kim, North Korean security officials stationed at the doorway of the center tried to block U.S. reporters and photographers from trying to enter.
Mayhem ensued. The U.S. press corps tried to wedge their way through North Korean officials. White House support staff were shoved. One American photographer was pulled back violently by his backpack. Incoming White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham ended up bruised.
Ultimately, with efforts from White House advance staff and communications officials, U.S. journalists were able to rush into the room to document Trump and Kim exchanging another round of warm greetings and beginning a meeting that ultimately ran near an hour.
Later in the afternoon, as American media tried to reenter the House of Freedom to question Trump and Moon, one official tried briefly to bar this Washington Post reporter — who is of Korean descent — by yelling “U.S. PRESS ONLY!” until other American journalists bellowed back that, indeed, she was.
It’s unclear what will happen from here in the dialogue between the United States and North Korea. Trump indicated that he was in no hurry to schedule a third formal summit with Kim.
But at the end of the day, Trump still will be the first sitting U.S. leader to step foot on North Korean territory.
Trump seemed to sense that weight of history. He watched Moon and Kim share an embrace, and Kim began returning to North Korea. At that moment, Trump couldn’t help but clap — briefly, but excitedly — as the day wound to a close.