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‘Sometimes you have to walk’: Trump leaves summit empty-handed at tough point in presidency

On Feb. 28, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended their Hanoi summit, aimed at negotiating North Korea's denuclearization, without a deal. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

HANOI — President Trump flew for 20 hours to this bustling Vietnamese capital determined to earn a place in history as the American statesman whose personal charm overcame decades of intransigence and erased the North Korean nuclear threat.

But the self-proclaimed master dealmaker left Hanoi on Thursday empty-handed and humbled by his inability to coax an erratic and reclusive dictator into giving up his arsenal.

Trump was so certain that he could broker an accord with Kim Jong Un, even if an incremental one, that the White House announced that it had scheduled a joint signing ceremony at which the two leaders would triumphantly conclude their two-day summit.

But that event, along with a working luncheon, was abruptly canceled amid a standoff over Kim’s demand that the United States remove all economic sanctions against North Korea without Pyongyang completely ending its nuclear program.

“Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times,” Trump told reporters at a news conference before flying home to Washington.

Trump and Kim abruptly cut short summit after failing to reach nuclear deal

The unexpected collapse of talks here was a setback for a president who has invested more than a year in cultivating a friendship with Kim — and holding his tongue on the leader’s record of brutality and human rights abuses — and whose signature foreign policy aim has been his unconventional strategy for denuclearizing North Korea.

At a news conference after his summit with Kim Jong Un, President Trump said North Korea wanted full sanctions relief, which the president said he couldn't do. (Video: The Washington Post)

It also came at a traumatic moment for the president. On Wednesday, Michael Cohen, his former longtime personal lawyer, delivered hours of extraordinary public testimony on Capitol Hill, alleging in gripping detail a years-long pattern of deception, lies and criminality by Trump.

The attention the hearing garnered is likely to fuel House Democrats’ efforts to investigate the president and his administration. Trump also could soon face the ramifications of the findings in a special counsel investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential race and any role the Trump campaign may have played.

The Hanoi summit underscored the limits of Trump’s ability to translate the charisma and hustler instincts that made him a wealthy New York real estate star into the more nuanced realm of international diplomacy. He has faced sharp criticism — including from some in his administration — for his approach, which relies more on style than substance.

“It exposed Trump’s overreliance on personal relationships, and it highlighted his tendency to badly underprepare,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Haass added that Trump “weakened his own hand by brimming with optimism. It signaled that he wanted an agreement too much, which then, I expect, only increased Kim’s instinct to ask for too much.”

Trump’s efforts are not dashed entirely, however. The president said he was hopeful that negotiations would continue and that he and Kim eventually could reach an accord, although he said the two had not committed to holding a third summit. 

“This wasn’t a walk away, like you get up and walk out,” Trump told reporters. “No, this was very friendly. We shook hands. . . . There’s a warmth that we have, and I hope that stays. I think it will. But we’re positioned to do something very special.”

Trump appeared chastened and unusually subdued in his 37-minute news conference here, a marked contrast to the celebratory and freewheeling postgame show he staged in Singapore over the summer at the conclusion of his historic first summit with Kim.

He did not joust as he often does with reporters, although he called on journalists from China whose questions were docile relative to some of the ones he fields from the White House press corps.

Even a friendly question from Sean Hannity, a Fox News Channel host who stood with senior White House officials against a wall before Trump encouraged him to inquire, did not lift the president’s mood. 

Trump had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flank him onstage and even called his top diplomat to the microphone to explain the inability to secure a deal with North Korea, as though the president wanted to mount a defense. 

Trump considers Pompeo his favorite Cabinet member, according to current and former administration officials, who say the secretary of state has a special way of handling the president. Trump said that Pompeo opposed the deal from the North Koreans. 

Trump was asked only one question here Thursday about Cohen’s testimony, from Jonathan Karl of ABC News, and answered by dismissing the hearing before the House Oversight Committee as “fake.”

“I tried to watch as much as I could,” Trump said. “I wasn’t able to watch too much because I’ve been a little bit busy, but I think having a fake hearing like that and having it in the middle of this very important summit is really a terrible thing.”

Trump went on to accuse Cohen of “shameful” and false testimony — except in one area, which the president spun as evidence that he did not conspire with the Russians.

“He lied a lot, but it was very interesting because he didn’t lie about one thing; he said no collusion with the Russian hoax,” Trump said. “And I said, ‘I wonder why he didn’t lie about that, too, like he did about everything else?’ I was actually impressed.”

Some of Trump’s advisers and aides, including national security adviser John Bolton, warned the president not to be so eager for a deal with North Korea as to hastily make an unwise concession, according to people familiar with the internal discussions.

Within some quarters, including among some critics of the president, there was a palpable relief that Trump was willing to walk away. After all, he left without lifting economic sanctions, agreeing to remove U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula or causing an international incident with an incendiary tweet or stray comment.

Evelyn N. Farkas, an Obama administration defense official, said the Hanoi summit was “a disaster for Trump personally and, for America, a diminution of our stature.” But, she said, there was a silver lining: “He didn’t make a bad deal, and a lot of people feared he would.”

Even as Trump and Kim disagreed on North Korea’s nuclear future, the president showered praise on his counterpart. He called the 35-year-old dictator “my friend” and gushed about his leadership and intelligence. They strolled on the grounds of the luxurious Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel and bantered over a dinner Wednesday night of grilled sirloin and chocolate lava cake.

Trump said he trusted Kim when the North Korean leader said that he would not fire any more missiles, even as he builds his stockpile. And Trump defended him in the brutal torture of American Otto Warmbier in North Korea over 17 months, saying he took Kim at his word when the dictator told him that he did not know about the treatment of the college student, who died at age 22 after being returned to Cincinnati.

“He’s quite a guy and quite a character,” Trump told reporters. “I think, frankly, we’ll be good friends with Chairman Kim and North Korea, and I think they have tremendous potential.”

Joseph Yun, who served as U.S. special representative for North Korea from 2016 to 2018 under President Barack Obama and Trump, said, “Trump tried to be nice-nice. It’s a page out of his book, relying on one-on-one negotiations, face-to-face negotiations. But that doesn’t work, especially with North Koreans.”

Yun added, “Trump is beginning to realize that North Korea’s not going to completely denuclearize, not now and probably not ever.”

Trump claimed as a victory the assurance from Kim that North Korea will no longer carry out missile launches or nuclear tests, but he seemed to hedge on the definition of denuclearization, and U.S. intelligence agencies have evidence that Pyongyang has sought to conceal its weapons programs despite publicly engaging in denuclearization talks. 

“He has a certain vision, and it’s not exactly our vision, but it’s a lot closer than it was a year ago,” Trump said.

Some analysts and administration officials questioned the wisdom of a summit that could hinge on Trump’s impulses as opposed to carefully negotiated details worked out in advance by subordinates.

Trump said his relationship with Kim is his greatest area of progress, and the North Korean leader seemed to agree.

“There would be people welcoming and people viewing our meeting with skepticism,” Kim said, “but there would also be people who would look at us spending a great time together, like a scene in a fantasy movie.”

So it was that a festive table at the Metropole was set for lunch for the two on Thursday. But the meal was suddenly canceled around noon. Trump and Kim’s name cards were still on the tables minutes later, as their motorcades were whisking them back to their hotels. Trump, who dislikes long flights and prefers to sleep in his own beds, took off from Vietnam two hours ahead of schedule.

Simon Denyer and John Hudson contributed to this report.