ROBERT COSTA: A handshake and history, and a long way to go. I’m Robert Costa. Inside the promise and peril of a breakthrough in the seemingly never-ending Korean War, tonight on Washington Week.
Korean leaders from the North and South make history, agreeing to end decades of tensions and turn a 1953 truce into a peace treaty.
SOUTH KOREAN PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN: (From video, through interpreter.) There will not be any more war on the Korean Peninsula.
KIM JONG-UN (supreme leader, North Korea): (From video, through interpreter.) We are of the same people that should live in unity.
MR. COSTA: How this stunning summit is a preview of the planned sit-down between President Trump and the North Korean leader.
EPA ADMINISTRATOR SCOTT PRUITT: (From video.) Much of what has been targeted towards me and my team has been half-truths or at best stories that have been so twisted they do not resemble reality.
MR. COSTA: Embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is fighting back against allegations of ethics violations and questions over his spending habits.
MR. PRUITT: (From video.) Those who attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities.
MR. COSTA: The president’s pick to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs withdraws from the nomination process following reports of professional misconduct. And Mr. Trump hosted the leaders of France and Germany this week, who urged the president to preserve the Iran nuclear deal.
FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (From video.) We should not abandon it without having something substantial and more substantial instead.
MR. COSTA: We cover it all with Tara Palmeri of ABC News, Yamiche Alcindor of the PBS NewsHour, Mark Landler of The New York Times, and Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. The images this week of statecraft and stagecraft were groundbreaking even as negotiations continue. But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in came together, shaking hands and smiling, as they agreed to remove all nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. And they announced they will work with the United States and China to officially end the war, a war that began in 1950. At the summit, the first between Korean leaders in more than a decade, Moon and Kim pledged to establish a permanent and solid treaty. That declaration included promises to pursue a phased reduction of military arms, transforming the border there into a peace zone, and reorganizing families, bringing them together that were divided by the long war.
In the Oval Office on Friday, President Trump said for now that he believes the North Korean leader is working in good faith. Quote: “I don’t think he’s playing,” Trump said, adding that he will not be played.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Yeah, I agree, the United States has been played beautifully, like a fiddle, because you had a different kind of a leader. We’re not going to be played, OK? We’re going to hopefully make a deal. If we don’t, that’s fine.
MR. COSTA: Mark, welcome to Washington Week. What are the next steps for President Trump here as he watches from afar President Moon and Kim Jong-un get together?
MARK LANDLER: Well, this summit sort of amounted to a drumroll for the summit that he’s going to have at the end of May or early June. And so I think that they were watching very closely in the White House to see what Kim – how Kim behaved, how he handled himself. And I think that probably the judgement is he’s a pretty adroit player. There was a moment, you recall, when the two leaders first met across the line of demarcation. And Moon maneuvered Kim for a picture. And before they retreated into the peace house to have their meeting, Kim took Moon by the arm, brought him back across the line of demarcation into North Korea. That struck me as the moment where it was clear, they’re dealing with a sophisticated guy. He understands stagecraft. He understands imagery. And I think, for Donald Trump, a president who understands stagecraft and imagery, it had to be an interesting moment to take the measure of this man he’s going to be dealing with.
MR. COSTA: So inside of the White House, Yamiche, are they thinking about the stagecraft for themselves, the theater of a big deal with Kim Jong-un? Or are they really thinking about the preconditions they want to set before that meeting?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I mean, I think it’s both. I think at the White House they’re very into, as you just said, imagery. President Trump very much knows what his – that he wants to look strong, that he wants to look like he’s in control. I was kind of surprised by the fact that he didn’t go on a complete, I would say, maybe two or three Twitters – or send two or three tweets today, just basically taking credit for the fact that they were talking about the war being over, because you kind of felt that President Trump was trying to say: I’m having a very big deal in this area. But instead, he kind of was smarter than that. He said, you know what, I’m looking forward to meeting with him. We’ve kind of gotten – we’ve gotten two locations and we’re down to this and we’re getting close. But he was really careful not to just say, you know, I’m going to sit there and I’m going to stick it to him. He basically said: We have these goals of denuclearization. But I don’t think he was taking the tough-man stance that he was taking when he was calling him “little rocket man.”
MR. COSTA: Tara, welcome to Washington Week. Are there any tensions inside of the Cabinet, the administration about how to move forward? To take a hardline or to look for that deal?
TARA PALMERI: I mean, you’re going to see the tensions between the new national security advisor, Bolton, and then also Mattis, secretary of defense. You know, they’re hardliners. They’re hawks. They’re not – they’re going to be very suspicious. They’ve been around the block in terms of foreign policy. And they’ve seen this game before, where North Korea plays nice enough just to get the sanctions lifted, and then, you know, reneges on the deal.
So I think that Trump is going to have to – they’re probably tempering his expectations. That’s why you’re seeing these tweets that aren’t necessarily victory laps. But you can see – I felt shades of Trump trying to paint this as his legacy. I’m sure he loved that Congressman Luke Messer said that he deserved a Nobel Peace Prize. Those are the kind of things that Trump loves to hear. But, you know, he’s going to have to temper his expectations. I think that’s what they’re going to be doing.
MR. COSTA: So there’s veteran skeptics inside of the administration. And, Dan, as a veteran reporter, you’ve seen presidents raise expectations before, and sometimes be challenged to meet those expectations.
DAN BALZ: Yes. And I think in this case that’s particularly the challenge for the president. You know, obviously something significant has happened. I mean, the fact that we are where we are today as opposed to where we were six months ago is quite remarkable. And the imagery that happened in Korea over the last 24 hours is also remarkable. But at best, the first meeting between our president and Kim – at best, all it can do is begin a process that might lead to something concrete. And I think that that’s part of the effort that they’re going to have to undertake. How do they set those expectations? What conditions are they putting on the table? To what extent are they prepared to yield on some things? And how patient – and I think this is really important – how patient is President Trump, who we don’t think is terribly patient in most other areas.
MR. COSTA: And it’s not just –
MS. PALMERI: Yeah, it just seems like he just wants to sign a deal and move on, just like he does in real estate. And this is something you have to nurture over a long period of time.
MR. COSTA: And he’s not the only player. President Xi Jinping of China was praised by President Trump today for trying to – with his hardline sanctions – bringing Kim perhaps to the table. China’s going to have a role to play as well.
MS. ALCINDOR: China is going to have a role to play. But I think when I think about how other countries are also painting this I was really surprised by the fact that Angela Merkel said that, you know, this is some great American leadership. There’s times where we see people kind of flattering Trump in this kind of way that’s pretty obvious. But in this way, she was trying to say, look, we can see you as a leader on this issue. We see you as someone who can bring in other countries. And I think that that’s important, that he’s – that he’s not just hearing, you know, this is a nice tie, or, you know, you can rub some dandruff off me. But he’s saying: We expect this from you.
And it was really important that he said: I feel like this is my responsibility. He started kind of trashing the people that came before him, both President Trump but also President Bush, saying: I don’t – I shouldn’t have had to take care of this, but I’m going to take care of this. So I think there’s this idea that he’s scared to raise expectations, in that he doesn’t want people to feel like I’m going to – I’m going to solve this. But he was really – it was really important to hear him kind of say that he wanted to take this leadership.
MR. COSTA: But, Mark, is Kim Jong-un playing with a weak hand right now? There are reports from China that his nuclear missile test site has been pretty much – it’s not functioning. And he’s dealing with crippling sanctions, has poverty throughout his country. Is he – what’s forcing him –
MR. LANDLER: Well, it depends on what your benchmark is. There’s no question his economy has suffered a great deal. Most analysts will tell you, they don’t believe it’s suffered enough that he would necessarily buckle. And there are reports about this nuclear facility being more or less collapsed.
That said, over the past several years they have gone – gotten to within a close threshold of being able to deliver an ICBM to American territory. So you could argue that he’s actually playing with exactly the right hand at the moment. When he made the pledge last week to halt testing he said, well, the reason we’re halting testing is we don’t need to test anymore. That was also a boast on his part. He was reaffirming what he said before, which is that we are already effectively a nuclear weapons state.
So I think that there’s two ways of looking at it. Yes, he’s under economic pressure, but he’s also made a lot of progress on his nuclear program, and he’s playing a strong hand. He knows that we know that. And he’s going to try to extract as much as he can in order to halt that program.
MR. COSTA: Tara, you mentioned that the past hovers over all of this, of course. What about human rights? What are they saying inside of the White House when you look at Otto Warmbier’s family suing North Korea, raising questions about whether you can really trust Kim Jong-un?
MS. PALMERI: I mean, that is a huge – that was a huge reminder of who we’re dealing with. A lot of the news reports you hear North Korean leader. But let’s not forget, he’s a dictator. And, you know, a senior Hill aide that I spoke to said, you know, this would have never happened in a Clinton administration because she would have taken so much flak from the foreign policy – the foreign policy just in general for dealing with a dictator. You’re not supposed to deal with them. What about human rights? But Trump showed us early on that that’s not his main priority, you know, being chummy with Saudi Arabia and just more looking for the deal than the details. But we still have three Americans being detained in North Korea. I mean, this is – this is a – we’re not playing with an honest broker right now.
MR. COSTA: Dan, could the U.S. accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, as long as they agree to peaceful terms with South Korea and the rest of the world?
MR. BALZ: Not on the basis that the president has established these negotiations. I mean, if that is rolled back in all kinds of ways, he’s going to be judged as having caved, if that’s allowed. I mean, in the same way that we’re dealing with Iran, that issue is front and center. The whole purpose of the end of strategic patience, the whole purpose of saber rattling was to say: We will not abide by nuclear weapons for North Korea. So I don’t see how he can give in on that. Now, the question is, can they structure a deal that takes a lot of time and, I mean, you know, Mark knows the details of this, but –
MR. LANDLER: Well, and I think – I think the issue is – I think the challenge for the president is going to be if the North Koreans string along the process, which they always have in the past, he’s going to come under a lot of pressure from the right, which is going to begin to question the strategy. And, you know, I think it’s also worth noting – Tara brought up John Bolton. John Bolton gave a very interesting interview a few days before he was recruited as national security advisor. He was asked about a Trump-Kim summit. And he said that it’s a useful exercise because it will fail quickly, and by failing it will allow us to move to the next phase of our engagement with them – by which, he clearly meant military action. And that’s going to be the tension that President Trump’s going to face if he tries to allow this process to play out over a long period of time.
MR. BALZ: But doesn’t it have to play out over a long period of time, almost by definition? I mean, let’s say they are seeking the end of nuclear weapons. I mean, the complexities of an agreement like that, and the conditions in return, that’s a couple of years process.
MR. LANDLER: Oh, yeah. And if you look at the one – the previous rounds of diplomacy during the Clinton years and during the Bush years, they both bogged down very quickly into these highly technical discussions about U.N. inspectors and where do you put stockpiles of uranium. And it does get extremely complicated very fast. And so to your point earlier, does the president have the patience? I think that’s going to be the key question for how this works out.
MR. COSTA: Details matter. Theater matters too in politics, at times. And so many players – Bolton and Pompeo, the president and his tweets, Mattis. We’ll be keeping a close eye on it.
But let’s turn to another complicated front: Iran. This week, President Trump met with the leaders of France and Germany and discussed the Iran nuclear deal that’s set to expire on May 12th. The week kicked off with a festive state visit in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron. The warm relationship between the two leaders was certainly on full display, but differences remain on trade and other issues. And in his address to a joint session of Congress, Macron called for an expanded deal that would include containment of Tehran’s destabilizing activities in the region. On Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel received a lower-profile welcome at the White House for a working meeting with the president. Merkel pressed the president to stay with the Iran deal. But during his first official trip as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who we’ve been talking about, said no decision has been made on whether the U.S. will pull out.
SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: (From video.) Absent a substantial fix, absent overcoming the shortcomings, the flaws of the deal, he is unlikely to stay in that deal past this May.
MR. COSTA: Tara, you’re at ABC News now but you spent a lot of time in Europe as a correspondent in Brussels. With Merkel and Macron back-to-back meetings with the president, what’s Europe’s agenda here in trying to keep President Trump with this Iran deal?
MS. PALMERI: Well, I spoke to a senior French official who said that Macron did leave disappointed. I mean, this is a hallmark of the EU. This actually validates the EU, which is dealing with a bit of an identity crisis since Brexit. This, you know, involved their top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, working very closely with John Kerry, with the support of Merkel and at the time Francois Hollande in France. And so, you know, they want this to stay together, and they’re considering adding an agreement on top of the agreement because just having that agreement is so symbolic for them. And, you know, they’re – he left acknowledging that they are going to have to expand that sunset clause for a lifetime rather than I think it was 10 years. And, you know, it was just – it’s really difficult for them to leave this. I mean, the thing is that Trump is doing what he said he was going to do. He said he was going to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, and he did. He said he was going to pull out of the Iran deal, and he seems like he would. He created this self-imposed deadline of May 12th. But, at the same time, with the Paris climate agreement they didn’t really give him another option, whereas I think this time they’re heading home and two weeks in European diplomacy time is like a minute, and they’re going to have to come up with something if they want him to stay.
MR. COSTA: Dan, does this have a cost for the nuclear talks with North Korea? If the U.S. is seen as getting out of the Iran deal, does that send a message to Kim Jong-un?
MR. BALZ: One would think that it would. And I think that part of the difficulty is we don’t know how Kim thinks. So normally you would say if you’re starting a negotiation with somebody and you are reneging on another negotiation or another treaty, that person is going to be deeply skeptical of you and your negotiating stance.
MR. LANDLER: I’ve heard analysts make another case, which is that Kim is such a hermetic guy and so preoccupied with his own world that he actually won’t put that much stock in what happens with a deal in a country that’s thousands of miles away that he barely understands. But I think Dan’s point is the right one: We truly don’t know. The amount of things we don’t know about Kim’s psyche are huge. I mean, I think with President Trump the difficult thing on the Iran deal is that the Europeans have come a long way toward him. They’re actually moved, I think, to a remarkable degree from a deal they thought was absolutely well-negotiated. And keep in mind it’s extremely popular with European publics. There’s actually a domestic cost for Merkel and Macron to even talk about walking away from this deal. So I think the fact that they have made this many steps toward the president and it doesn’t seem to be enough almost forecloses the possibility of a – of a happy outcome.
MR. COSTA: Speaking of domestic costs, when you look at Macron, he’s balancing a lot of balls in the air this week, trying to become chummy with President Trump but also in his speech to Congress signal back home that he’s going to be against nationalism and against isolationism.
MS. ALCINDOR: It was a – it was a remarkable bromance until it ended. There was the whole – I mean, that dandruff scene, where the president was touching him. As a reporter, you sit back and you think: Did that really just happen? But then you listen to the president of France talk to Congress and it was – it sounded like he was talking directly to President Trump. He was saying, look, we understand “America first” is something that got you elected, but we really don’t want this to be an isolationist, we don’t want this to be about nationalism. You can’t just pull out of the world; the world is going to go on. So he was speaking in this poetic way, reminding America that France and America have been joined at the hip and really connected for centuries. So there’s this idea that he was really trying to send this message that, look, France really wants to be your friend. And to be our friend, to be – to continue to be close to us, we need to have these deals together. We need to make these agreements. And I was sitting in that press conference, and they both physically were looking – I think physically the body language between them when you see them in the room is them feeling chummy, is them feeling warm. I think both of them are trying to feel as though they were having a connection. But then, when you listen to his address to Congress, you kind of think, mmm, is he – is he telling Trump, hey don’t do that?
MS. PALMERI: The thing that Trump needs to remember, too, when he’s talking to Macron, when he’s talking to Merkel, he’s not just talking to the leaders of France and Germany; he’s speaking to the leaders of the EU, and they are and Macron is there defending the interests of the EU. And he needs to realize that when he talks about trade with Germany, he’s talking about trade with Slovenia as well, even though it’s a smaller country. And he keeps talking about bilaterals and he’s – and he needs to understand the political dimensions in Europe when he’s doing this, and I think he’s sort of maybe missing that point a bit.
MR. COSTA: Those tariffs on steel and aluminum, that’s another reason that we see all these overtures between the European leaders in their meetings with President Trump. But there was more news this week, because President Trump saw one Cabinet member under a hot spotlight on Capitol Hill this week and his pick to lead the Veterans Affairs Administration bowed out following reports of inappropriate work behavior.
White House Doctor and Real Admiral Ronny Jackson withdrew as nominee for secretary of veterans affairs after current and former colleagues accused him of professional misconduct while serving as the president’s personal physician. In his statement Dr. Jackson responded to those allegations, saying if they had any merit I would not have been selected, promoted, and entrusted to serve in such a sensitive and important role.
On the same day embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faced two congressional hearings about his management of the agency and spending habits. Lawmakers questioned the EPA administrator for five hours about a $43,000 phone booth, his first-class travel, and a condo rental from the wife of a lobbyist. Pruitt downplayed his role in spending decisions and often blamed his staff.
Tough situation for Dr. Jackson, all these allegations, but also not a lot of vetting by this White House.
MR. BALZ: No, I mean, this was – this whole nomination turned into a train wreck starting with the decision, I think, to nominate him without any serious vetting, and to nominate somebody who did not have the kind of experience that one would expect you need to run a bureaucracy that’s as troubled and as big as the Veterans Administration. And then it went to Capitol Hill and, you know, it was like all of these allegations started flowing in. And interestingly, and in some ways disturbingly, this got pushed out by Senator Tester without much backup information. I mean, there was one allegation in particular which the White House says tonight is not true, which is that he crashed a vehicle after he got drunk at a Secret Service event. He denied it. The Congress folks did not have any backup evidence of it. So, you know, it starts with bad personnel operations at the – at the White House and then it just spiraled out of control.
MR. LANDLER: You know, what was interesting about it to me was the fact that you had almost universal declarations and statements of support for Ronny Jackson from Obama administration officials, Trump administration officials, Ivanka Trump tweeting, and yet from the people who worked with Dr. Jackson and who privately went to the Senate committee there was evidence that he was at the very least a pretty bad boss. And I guess it just sort of shows the isolation that the White House Medical Office is in within the White House that the political side either turned a blind eye to this or was unaware of the way he ran his operation.
MS. PALMERI: I just – I’m just wondering, where was the pushback from the White House? Why did they not find these people that worked in the Obama administration, in George Bush’s administration, and fact-check and get them out there talking about Ronny Jackson, defending him? No one talked to him. It’s a day after he withdrew his name, and now we know that that allegation is not true, or at least the White House is saying that it’s not true. All of this stuff should have happened in real time, and I think it’s just also a lesson that the – that the Trump administration is really learning how to nominate. (Laughs.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I’ll say this, I talked to a lot of White House aides who echoed that. People in the White House were telling me they were very frustrated with the fact that they were not really having a rapid response to all the things that were coming at Dr. Jackson. And while they were handing out – I think it was Thursday the White House was kind of handing out to any reporter who would listen all these – all these promotion requests from Barack Obama, the president himself that same day was not talking about Barack Obama’s promotion requests. He was saying, look, if I was Ronny Jackson, I’d probably take the way out.
MR. COSTA: And Scott Pruitt, he hangs on because in part, my sources tell me, he has support from conservatives in Congress, conservative donors like him. But his future could be in the balance here.
MR. BALZ: Although it’s – I think it’s a little less clear what direction it’s going in or a little less clear that he’s on a slope out after the hearings. He got probably more support from Republicans on the committees than might have been expected. He got very tough questioning from Democrats and a couple of Republicans, but not widespread.
MR. COSTA: Is the White House going to walk away? Is the White House going to walk away from Pruitt?
MS. PALMERI: I mean, they don’t have that many options. They need to get a head of the VA through. I mean, this is – Trump likes Pruitt. I’ve been told that actually other Cabinet members are a little bit jealous of his relationship with Scott Pruitt. He likes how he’s rolling back all of President Trump’s agenda and regulations, and he has a truly conservative agenda on the environment. So –
MR. COSTA: Rolling back the Obama agenda.
MS. PALMERI: Yeah, exactly, rolling back the Obama agenda. And so Trump, at the end of the day, finds him as a loyal messenger. Obviously, this is a distraction and a sideshow, and the question is when will it become too much.
MR. COSTA: Well, we’ve got to go. Got to leave it there. I always love hearing the story from my sources about how Pruitt goes to the White House mess to eat lunch. We can talk about later. (Laughter.) Thanks, everybody.
Coming up next on In Principle, co-host Amy Holmes chats with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who shares his optimistic big-picture view of the future. That’s tonight on In Principle on most PBS stations. Check your local listings.
And our conversation continues online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll talk about President Trump’s legal challenges and the new House report on the Russia probe. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.