ROBERT COSTA: It’s back on. President Trump will head to Singapore to meet with the North Korean leader. I’m Robert Costa. We discuss the diplomatic drama and what it means, and new tariffs spark trade tensions, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) And I have never said it happens in one meeting. You’re talking about years of hostility, years of problems, years of really hatred. And I told him today, take your time. We can go fast. We can go slowly.
MR. COSTA: A week after canceling a summit with North Korea, President Trump announces the on-again, off-again meeting with Kim Jong-un is back on.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We’ll be meeting on June 12th in Singapore.
MR. COSTA: Both the president and the secretary of state say they are confident talks with North Korea over nuclear weapons are moving in the right direction. We report on the latest twist in the high-stakes negotiations.
Plus, economic uncertainty as the U.S. slaps new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Europe, Canada, and Mexico.
We discuss it all with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and Shawna Thomas of VICE News.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. Just one week after abruptly canceling a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Trump announced the June 12th summit is a go. On Friday he met with North Korea’s former spy chief, Kim Yong-chol, at the White House. The huddle was the culmination of this week’s developments. Days earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a dinner with Chol and other North Korean officials in New York to continue the rapid-fire diplomacy that began almost as soon as the president pulled out of the planned summit last week. Today the president lowered expectations even as he expressed optimism to reporters.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I have never said it goes in one meeting. I think it’s going to be a process. But the relationships are building, and that’s a very positive thing.
MR. COSTA: Peter, let’s just get into this. He’s talking about the beginning of a process. If this is just the start of a long process, what does success look like on June 12th?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, that’s a great question. We’re no longer looking at June 12th as the breakthrough moment. Now we’re looking at it as a get-to-know-you-plus meeting. That’s what he called it. And, look, they were trying to downplay expectations because I think it’s become clear to them, especially in this last week as things kind of blew up and were put back together, that there’s no such thing as a straight line when it comes to North Korea, and they did not want to have the expectations so high that when they came out of Singapore without a document that seemed to be a solution to everything that it looked like a failure.
MR. COSTA: Well, what about – what document could come out of this? It may not be denuclearization commitments from North Korea, but the president mentioned there could be an end to the long Korean War.
ANDREA MITCHELL: Indeed, and I think one interim step might be establishing interest sections. That would not be a full embassy, it would not be an end to the war yet – although he did certainly tee that up – but it could be the beginning of steps toward that. And interest sections would be a big deal because we have no real visibility in Pyongyang. And interest sections would be what we had with Cuba for all those decades, where you can do spying. You can do everything that you can do at an embassy, except have formal recognition. So it would give us a window into what they are doing, a much easier way to verify whether they’re complying, and also they would have a window into Washington, which they clearly have because we’re a much more transparent society.
MR. COSTA: What do you make of Secretary Pompeo? He’s the one in the Oval Office with the president. It’s not National Security Advisor John Bolton. The hawks are not driving this process. It’s Pompeo; it’s the president himself.
SHAWNA THOMAS: I think what’s interesting about that is, you know, in some ways the State Department should be taking the lead on this. If we were doing a more normal process of this kind of negotiation, a lot of what we’ve seen in this back and forth would have happened behind closed doors, it usually isn’t this publicized, but it would be the State Department trying to figure out what does denuclearization mean? Are we speaking the same language? Are we doing that? I actually think it’s a somewhat – even though Pompeo is pretty much a hawk as well – it’s a somewhat good thing that the guy who’s in charge of the State Department is the one who’s, in some ways, representing America in that room along with President Trump.
MS. MITCHELL: And in fact, Bolton – John Bolton, the national security advisor, was noticeably absent. There were some indications that he might be there today. He was not in the Oval Office. He was nowhere to be seen. And it is, I’m told, exactly because – precisely because he spoke of the Libyan model, almost derailed this whole meeting. So did Mike Pence, and he was not in the room. It was just John Kelly and, importantly, Pompeo, as Shawna says. He’s the point man here. He has street cred with the president because he was the CIA briefer for 17 months before 30 days ago, approximately, he became the secretary of state. So he is a hardliner, but he is also very invested in this.
And I think he has correctly taken stock of the president’s interest in legacy. There are political implications for this. He’s going to do something that no other president has been able to do. And if they can verify it, and if he now has a lowered expectation that it’s going to take a while – it’s not going to be one summit or two or three. He might stay longer in Singapore. He’s certainly indicated that – than one day. He might be able to do something that Barack Obama certainly never achieved, or even really attempted, that George W. Bush tried and failed at, and that Bill Clinton, most importantly, tried and failed to achieve.
MR. COSTA: So not having Bolton in the room, that’s a big signal. So’s when the president said we didn’t talk about human rights. That’s an issue so many past American presidents have talked about with North Korea. What are the signals, though, that Kim Jong-un is sending? He’s sending his top guy in Kim Yong-chol to talk to the president. What has he done, though, to show any kind of commitment to these talks?
MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think sending his top guy is one way. I think the fact that he – it still seems that they are talking, that you have a team of people who is in Singapore still going through the process of trying to figure out what actually happens on June 12th. And I also find it interesting that even though last week we all got into a frenzy and President Trump said, you know, he’s not going to actually go to the summit, he sent the letter, that whole thing, it seems like behind the scenes people just kind of kept going, which they needed to do if you were going to try to make June 12th work.
MR. BAKER: But the president said two things today – several things today, but two things in particular that were notable and different, right? You played one of them, this will be a process, not right away. He’s sending a signal, take your time. He specifically even said those words. I said those words, take your time. A week ago they were saying it had to be rapid denuclearization, it had – it could not be extended over time. It’s a big change. The other thing was I don’t even like to use the phrase “maximum pressure” he said. Well, that is his phrase for his strategy of economic and diplomatic isolation of North Korea. What he’s signaling is, in effect, we may not be taking sanctions off, but we’re really maybe not going to be enforcing the ones we’ve got on all that vigorously. It’s letting up a little bit of the pressure. And that’s seen by some experts as a significant concession.
MR. COSTA: Well, what’s driving Kim Jong-un at this moment, though? Is it China pushing him to the table? Is it the sanctions that are crippling his economy? What’s putting him to give the letter to Kim Yong-chol to drive this moment?
MR. BAKER: By most accounts he wants to bring his backwards country into at least a little bit more of an economic, you know, prosperous place. You see the satellite photos with the North completely dark while China and South Korea are lit at night. There is such deprivation in that place. And he seems – according to people who are smarter about this than I am – to be concerned about finally trying to bring it out of that backwards area. And the nuclear weapons program is his playing card.
MS. MITCHELL: And one of the things to remember here is that Kim Yong-chol was a real enemy, an adversary. He’s still sanctioned. He had to get special permission to even set foot in the United States, and then to come to Washington. The visit is in sharp contrast to the only previous visit at this level in the Oval Office, which was with Bill Clinton in October of 2000, setting up Madeleine Albright’s trip 10 days later. It was the red carpet today. It was the South Portico. It was photographers and reporters positioned to catch the glimpse of them walking down the colonnade, the Oval Office –
MS. THOMAS: Shaking hands afterwards. That’s – yeah.
MS. MITCHELL: Shaking hands, pictures released. And then the respect of walking him out to his motorcade, taking still photos with the rest of his delegation, posing for pictures, and then praising him so warmly.
MR. COSTA: So let’s say this – the U.S. is giving Kim respect. As Peter was saying, they’re trying to help him turn on the lights in his own country. What do U.S. allies, what does the rest of the world say if this meeting happens on June 12th and he doesn’t commit to denuclearization, but he somehow is engaging with the world?
MS. THOMAS: I think – I mean, I think, number one, South Korea and Japan say if he doesn’t commit to denuclearization and also insists on us pulling back from some of our security that’s in that region – like the nuclear umbrella that’s over those two countries – I think they say, you got played, to a certain extent. I think the rest of the world is just going to sit and watch because they don’t want to be played by North Korea. But in some ways – in some ways this was half a win today, for the North Koreans. And if that handshake and that photograph happen on June 12th in Singapore, that’s almost a full win for North Korea.
MS. MITCHELL: And the South Koreans – President Moon in South Korea is completely invested in this. He ran on this program. And he, you know, quickly met with Kim Jong-un this past weekend to put it back together. That was, in fact, a little worrying to the American side. They thought, well, maybe Moon is too much joining Kim Jong-un. But the Japanese are very nervous about this.
MR. COSTA: And the president seemed a little nervous about Russia’s engagement with Kim Jong-un.
MS. THOMAS: That’s exactly right.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. He was very peeved that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met to meet with Kim Jong-un in North Korea. What was that about? It seemed to be some sort of a Russian play.
MR. COSTA: What was it about?
MR. BAKER: Well, we don’t know. But if it’s Russia you can assume it wasn’t friendly. I mean, it was not coordinated, clearly, with the United States, and that they have their own interests in North Korea. They have their own interests in this region. They have their own interests basically in preventing a win for the United States. Vladimir Putin sees global diplomacy as a zero-sum game. If we win, that means they lose. So they tend to muck around in things.
The other thing that’s interesting about this is that, you know, this – for the president, one of his strengths and weaknesses, sometimes the same thing, is his lack of firm commitment to particulars in any policy, right? He – unlike, say, some of his predecessors who got themselves locked in – we have to have this, that, or the other thing in order to have a deal – President Trump is very flexible on stuff like that. He’s very capable of creating a deal that doesn’t actually comport with what he had said in the past and doesn’t worry that he’ll be called out for being inconsistent. That gives him some flexibility going into a negotiation. It may or may not be a good deal, but it also means that he may have a greater chance of coming to the table with something to show for it.
MS. MITCHELL: I think that’s exactly right. And also Peter’s point about what Kim Jong-un gets out of this, he does want to turn the lights on. And I was in New York when Secretary Pompeo pointedly showed Kim Yong-chol the vista of the East River, the skyscrapers. They wanted to show Manhattan. They wanted to show off the White House. Not as grand as, in fact, the palace that Kim Jong-un inhabits in Pyongyang. But the rest of the country is just barren. I can’t even describe what it was like to drive from Pyongyang, a number of years ago, down to the DMZ. And you see these barely arable lands with what looks like feudal Medieval peasants hoeing with wooden non-mechanized equipment. They have basically nothing.
MR. COSTA: The rest of the world is watching very closely as the president deals with North Korea. They’re also watching closely on trade this week. New tariffs President Trump has imposed on aluminum and steel imported from Europe came about with a new policy this week. Canada and Mexico are looking at new policies from the U.S. The move comes from the president as the administration is also pressuring China. The American allies this week immediately pushed back, threatening retaliation and measures targeting American products. The decision is raising concerns, certainly on Capitol Hill. The president, as you remember, originally imposed the 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent on aluminum in March, citing national security concerns, but issued a temporary exemption for the EU, Canada, and Mexico. That exemption has now expired.
Shawna, VICE News has been talking to voters in the Midwest and other places around the country. We always think about trade sometimes in Washington as something that’s being negotiated among the power players, but how is it affecting those who are out in the country running businesses, running farms?
MS. THOMAS: Well, we – a couple weeks ago, back in March actually, when we were in Illinois for another story, we talked with a farmer. He’s a Trump supporter. Has a farm that has a lot of dairy cows and a couple of other things. And one of the things he said that we found to be really interesting is that he still supported President Trump despite the fact that there was this, like, are we going to get these more tariffs from China, are we going to get more tariffs from the EU, that whole thing. But he was able to sort of basically convince himself that President Trump has a master plan; he probably doesn’t realize how this affects farmers, so people need to tell him how it affects farmers; but once he finds that out and once we all see what the plan is, things will be fine, and stay on President Trump’s side. And I think it’s interesting how no matter what he does, if you support him you are able to sort of comport his actions into something that is believable that is supporting you.
MR. COSTA: So is that what’s keeping the president plowing forward in such an aggressive way, he knows some of his base is going to stick with him – he had good jobs numbers on Friday for the U.S. economy – even though some of his advisors, some Republicans, are saying, hey, hold off?
MR. BAKER: No, that’s right, even Republicans who are normally very deferential to him are saying this is going to actually hurt us. All the things you’re bragging about in terms of the economy now are at risk if you get us into a sustained and escalating kind of trade war. It’s a very interesting moment for the Republican Party because their orthodoxy has been for decades free trade, free trade. And I think what you’re saying is right. I mean, we have focused so much in recent years on the losers in free trade – and there are losers of free trade – and their stories have captivated politicians like President Trump and like many, many Democrats, but if you flip that around there are a lot of winners in free trade too. And if they suddenly become losers, it will be interesting to see how that changes the political dynamics.
MS. MITCHELL: And I was interviewing some farmers from Wisconsin who were on Capitol Hill lobbying to prevent this from happening. They are really getting killed by it and are very concerned about the NAFTA negotiations, which had reached a critical point and had succeeded in the last couple of days. Pressure by this administration had gotten Mexico and Canada back to the table to renegotiate NAFTA, they came up with a deal, and then it got blown up – by Vice President Pence is the argument from Canada, Justin Trudeau furious at this personal slam that – statement that came out from the White House against Canada last night.
MR. COSTA: His statement in response, Andrea, was – he said Canada has been America’s most – one of America’s most steadfast allies, served along America in two world wars, the Korean War; we have to believe that sometime their common sense will prevail. Powerful words from the prime minister.
MS. MITCHELL: Yeah, and they were in Afghanistan, they were elsewhere, they are NATO allies, and there is so much anger. And you talk to cranberry growers in Massachusetts, yes, that’s a – that’s a Democratic state, it’s a blue state, but I think throughout the Midwest you’re going to hear real pushback. The auto industry is going to get killed by this. So we should be hitting at China for its unfair trade practices, but we’re really blowing ourselves up is the argument.
MR. COSTA: But are we going to see pushback? Because Democrats seem to be trying to steal back this populist trade pitch from President Trump.
MS. THOMAS: Well, I think – I think as we get closer and closer, and if this trade war actually becomes a trade war, you will. I mean, I think one of the points – and probably your guys in Wisconsin and my guys in Illinois said this – is that – when we were there, even just the conversation around NAFTA and the threat of these tariffs, he was like, I have lost money today. So it wasn’t that I’m going to lose money in five months; he was like, I look at my fields, I know what I’ve planned, I’ve already lost money because of the threats of these tariffs.
MS. MITCHELL: Keep your eye on the auto industry. That’s the Midwest. That’s where this election was won and lost by the Democrats, and they are really going to be hit hard.
MR. COSTA: What about inside of the White House, Peter? We talk about Bolton with North Korea, him not being in the room says a lot. On trade you have Peter Navarro, this nationalist trade advisor inside of the White House, really pushing the administration to be – take a harder stance on China and on the EU.
MR. BAKER: Well, he has, and they’re very divided on this. You see this basically every day, this kind of a flip-floppy kind of quality at times to it. Today Secretary Mnuchin says the trade war is off for now, it’s on hold, and the next day suddenly they’re going back wholesale on it. Peter Navarro and Mnuchin are supposedly at odds. They supposedly have had shouting matches at each other. And that I think kind of captures sort of this – you know, the dynamics of this administration, where there really is an ideological divide between, you know, traditional business-oriented type Republicans who are going along with the president’s concern about trade, but are fundamentally believers in the orthodoxy of the party for the last couple decades; and then the populist side, the nationalist side that believes that they’ve been – the other side has been all wrong going back to the ’90s.
MR. COSTA: The president said in his comments to reporters before he got in the helicopter that he wants to cut bilateral deals with Canada, with Mexico, with the EU. Is this what we should expect in the coming months?
MS. MITCHELL: I don’t see any chance that Canada is now going to negotiate with the U.S. bilaterally they are so angry about what has happened. This is a really deeply painful slam, and you don’t treat Canada – his rhetoric against Mexico has been so profoundly disagreeable. We’ve seen that. We saw a very sharp statement from Pena Nieto, the president of Mexico, about the wall because was in Nashville, the president was, again talking about Mexico paying for the wall, and Pena Nieto immediately tweeted –
MS. THOMAS: No we’re not.
MS. MITCHELL: – no we’re not, and that we’re speaking for all of us.
MR. COSTA: And the G-7’s coming up in Canada.
MS. THOMAS: It’s going to be awkward.
MS. MITCHELL: That is going to be awkward.
MR. BAKER: This is amazing. It’s coming up in Canada.
MS. MITCHELL: That’s next week.
MR. BAKER: Exactly, next week. And the president is going to go up there to Canada, hosted by Justin Trudeau, and who else is going to be there? The Germans, the French, the British, and the Japanese, who are also, you know, on the edge on the steel stuff. I mean, there’s a lot of tension coming into that meeting, and they’re already on edge because of the ripping up of the Iran deal. I mean, Europe and America are at odds about that. So this is going to be a big, big meeting full of possible tension there.
MS. THOMAS: And correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the EU or the countries within the EU can’t actually just negotiate unilateral deals with us anyway.
MR. BAKER: No.
MS. THOMAS: It is part of their charter that the EU does these things as one solid bloc. So President Trump might want that, but that’s not how the EU operates.
MS. MITCHELL: And when he got out of TPP, which was also Hillary Clinton’s position, he got out of TPP and said we’re going to have all these – you know, these bilateral negotiations, none of which has happened. Meanwhile, China filling in and moving in and making their own deals. So we’ve created a huge vacuum at a big disadvantage to American business in Asia.
MR. COSTA: And Europe’s facing its own problems because you have a new government coming into Italy, you have the Brexit sentiment still in the U.K. They’re not functioning as a total institutional continent either.
MR. BAKER: No, that’s right. Europe is really on the edge because of this Italian thing, and it’s striking that we’ve heard nothing from the White House about it, nothing from the administration. In the past we saw, when Bush was president, when Obama was president and Europe was sort of on the edge, they spoke out. They at least provided some rhetorical leadership in what they were trying to say. There’s no interest in this, it seems like, in this White House, and that has a huge impact on them because if Europe suddenly tanks economically that will have a big impact on us.
MR. COSTA: Final thoughts on how this plays in the midterms, trade?
MS. THOMAS: I think if you see people in the Midwest who actually feel the pain on this – because that’s what people vote on. They vote on their jobs. They vote on their money. They vote on whether they can take a vacation with their kids, right? And so if there are people in the Midwest who thought President Trump was going to bring them something and they blame him for their farms not making as much money, then I think Republicans will probably suffer.
MR. COSTA: We shall see.
MS. THOMAS: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: We’ll see what happens. As President Trump would say, we’ll see what happens. Thanks, everybody.
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Our conversation will continue online on the Washington Week Extra, where we will talk about Puerto Rico’s recovery and presidential pardons. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy your weekend.