ROBERT COSTA: The summit is set, June 12th in Singapore, President Trump and the North Korean leader together. I’m Robert Costa. We discuss the hopes and challenges of U.S. foreign policy in North Korea and with the Iran nuclear deal, tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I’ll be meeting with Kim Jong-un to pursue a future of peace and security for the world, for the whole world. (Cheers, applause.)
MR. COSTA: North Korea frees three American detainees, clearing the way for President Trump to set a date and place for the summit with Kim Jong-un.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) My proudest achievement will be when we denuclearize that entire peninsula. This is what people have been waiting for for a long time.
MR. COSTA: Can the president convince the North Korean leader to abandon his nuclear program next month in Singapore, and what will Kim demand in return? Plus, one day after the president pulls the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, a warning to Tehran.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program. If they do, there will be very severe consequence, OK?
MR. COSTA: But the president of Iran issues his own threat, saying if international diplomacy cannot save the deal Iran may chart its own path. Tensions rise in the Middle East, where Israel retaliates against Iran’s latest military moves. Will the U.S. need to step in?
We examine the global implications with Peter Baker of The New York Times, Shawna Thomas of VICE News, Anne Gearan of The Washington Post, and Michael Crowley of POLITICO.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. There was a thematic thread running through articles this week from two of the sharp reporters who join us tonight. Peter Baker of The New York Times said President Trump was “returning to his china-breaking instincts and upending diplomatic traditions.” Anne Gearan of The Washington Post wrote: “The president, guided by his new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton, is now intent on making gut-driven decisions and taking an out-of-the-box approach that is both unilateral and combative, and has real consequences for the world.”
By week’s end Mr. Trump’s moves remain hotly debated, with his supporters praising him and already chanting “Nobel Prize” at his rallies. The president’s skeptics, they’re alarmed about the possibility of conflict and heightened tensions.
But the president, he continues to move ahead. On Monday the U.S. embassy will open in Jerusalem, earlier this week the U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, and Mr. Trump secured the release of three American prisoners who were being held in North Korea. In a month from today, the president plans to sit down with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore, pushing him to dismantle his nuclear program. Mr. Trump’s message about Kim so far has been upbeat. And that’s to the chagrin of some Republicans and Democrats.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) It is so troubling to hear President Trump say that Kim Jong-un treated the Americans excellently. Kim Jong-un is a dictator.
SENATOR JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): (From video.) I have been concerned about some of the rhetoric lately, calling him very honorable. I think we need to go in with our eyes wide open about what we’re dealing with.
MR. COSTA: Anne, you’ve been covering this all week. When you think about all the different perspectives about President Trump’s moves on North Korea, but it’s the two men themselves – the two leaders, Kim Jong-un and President Trump, who are at the center of this diplomatic issue. They’re driving it. Personal diplomacy. Why is that? Why is it more about them than the process?
ANNE GEARAN: Well, on Kim’s side, it’s always been about him because he’s a one-man dictator in a one-man show country. For President Trump, it’s – he’s making it about him. And he’s essentially meeting Kim where he is. He understands that Kim has the power to make decisions unilaterally for his country. And so President Trump is turning the usual diplomatic process on its head. And rather than working up to the big summit where the leaders sign something that’s been precooked, he’s going to do it the other way around. And he’s going to say: Here’s the guy who can make a decision on the spot. I can make a decision on the spot. I’m going to go into the room with him and, through the power of my personality and the fact that we have some common interests here, maybe we can get a deal.
MR. COSTA: And what would that deal look like when they meet next month?
PETER BAKER: It’s a great question. And if you talk to different administration officials, you get different answers, right? What John Bolton, his new national security advisor, had said before taking the job was what the deal should look like is everything that North Korea has gets shipped on a boat to the United States and put in the nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. And that’s the only thing they should be discussing, the logistics of how that’ll happen. Now, obviously that’s not what Kim Jong-un thinks he’s going to be talking about with President Trump. And I don’t think President Trump expects this to be, you know, solved in this one meeting, necessarily. They’ve scheduled one day for it. They have some option to maybe extend if things are going really well.
But Anne’s right. I mean, they’re kind of turning it on their head. I mean, this will be the start and then they’ll turn it over, presumably, to the experts. Certainly that’s what Condoleezza Rice said the day out in California, was that don’t try to make a big deal in this one meeting. You won’t know enough about the details. You’ll get taken for a ride, in effect is what she’s saying. But, you know, the reason why it’s Kim and Trump is because they are both one-man shows. I mean, if you were in this administration – we’ve seen it again and again – Rex Tillerson couldn’t make a decision. I don’t think Mike Pompeo could make a decision. It all comes down to Donald Trump.
SHAWNA THOMAS: But isn’t the reason why it doesn’t usually happen this way is because now, at the very beginning of that negotiating process, even if – even though Secretary Pompeo has been to North Korea, I guess, twice now, since he’s – since we knew he was going to be secretary of state. Kim Jong-un gets his photo op. He gets to have the handshake with President Trump. In theory the traveling press will be in the room. And around the world, people will see him as someone who has the same level of stature with the United States. In some ways, his nuclear weapons have brought him that. But giving that up at the very beginning has some issues.
MR. COSTA: And that’s an important point. He’s looking for prestige, Michael, Kim Jong-un. But he also signaled this week in his meetings with China that he wants to make sure North Korea has an economy. They’re struggling there. And he knows that if he can improve trade and get some jobs for his people and get some income that it could really change his own stake and power.
MICHAEL CROWLEY: It could. And, you know, an interesting question is how far does that vision go? So does he want to get sort of the chokehold off so that he doesn’t have to worry about potential, you know, starvation in the country, popular unrest, people who are coming to knock him out of power? Or, is he thinking more ambitiously? Does he look at the Chinese model, for instance, and say: I can actually potentially maintain a sort of authoritarian system, have this party structure, but we can have, you know, BMWs and Mercedes in the street and people can be making money and having a wealthy lifestyle? China has set a very interesting example. And we just don’t know what his goal is. There’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know whether he sees some sort of vision in the near term of some reunification with the South. There are just so many questions.
I would say one of the other big questions is, you know, what if any red line does Donald Trump have right now? Something that strikes me in the president’s rhetoric is that he has learned this acronym CVID, complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization. And that is this wonky phrase that has been kicking around in foreign policy circles for years. President Trump himself has internalized it. I actually had an Asian diplomat who pointed this out to me. He said, you notice that the president is saying this. And that is a very high standard. Think of those words again: complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization. There is no way to fudge that with a handshake and a smiling photo op. That’s serious business.
MR. BAKER: No. I – sorry.
MS. GEARAN: I loved – I loved somebody asked Trump about two weeks ago, well, what does denuclearization mean to you? He goes: That’s easy. He gets rid of his nukes. (Laughter.) Right?
MR. BAKER: Right.
MS. THOMAS: But it’s not that easy.
MS. GEARAN: Of course, it’s not that easy, yeah.
MR. BAKER: And John Bolton said this week, in talking about the Iran deal, people said, well, look the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Association (sic; Agency), said that they’re complying with the deal. He said, well, you can’t say that. He says, you cannot say they’re actually complying with the deal unless you think the IAEA and American intelligence agencies are infallible. So that’s a bar that he set with Iran, meaning there’s no way to ever say that it’s verifiable. If that’s the case, how are we going to say it with North Korea, which is almost infinitely more difficult because they actually have the bomb already?
MR. COSTA: Well, let’s say that put that on the table. If North Korea puts denuclearization on the table when they’re in Singapore, what does the U.S. put on the table? Is it removing the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula?
MS. THOMAS: I mean, I think that’s one option. And I’m sure the North Koreans would love that. I think the other thing is helping them open up their economic ties, like what we were talking about before. I mean, allowing more money to flow into North Korea, so that they can be a bigger part of the world. It’s going to be some combination of that, is what Kim’s got to ask for. But I think the idea that Kim Jong-un is going to put what I think most people consider denuclearization – including the president of the United States – on the table, seems like a fantasy to a certain extent. And also, if you look at what’s going on with Iran, why would he?
MR. COSTA: We keep talking about Pompeo – the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton, the national security advisor. How difference is U.S. foreign policy now, in particular with North Korea, that those two people are in those positions rather than their predecessors?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s a complicated answer, because they are both more hawkish than the men they replaced. John Bolton and H.R. McMaster I think is really – I was going to say it’s the sharper contrast, but you really do have a contrast between Pompeo and Tillerson. But at the same time, the president has kind of veered into this more conciliatory approach with North Korea. So in those two jobs, you have very serious hawks. But the president is in a different place on this negotiation. And that’s where you have to watch and see whether there’s a potential rift.
Now, Mike Pompeo seems to be pretty well onboard with what the president is doing. And he has actually played President Trump very skillfully – (laughs) – over the past 18 months. I think there’s actually a real possibility that John Bolton is looking at all this and, you know, the first major thing he does when he – I guess the Iran nuclear deal was the first big thing. But, OK, second big task. And he’s thinking: Boy, you know, what is the president walking into? Because all Bolton has been saying for months is that you can’t trust them.
MR. COSTA: You sense tensions in your reporting?
MS. GEARAN: I sense that people are waiting for it, because the bounds of that potential conflict are so clear. I mean, what is Trump setting himself up to do with North Korea? He’s setting himself up to have an ongoing negotiation about lowering or getting rid of a nuclear capability in exchange for economic rewards and some diplomatic opening. Gee, that sounds very familiar. (Laughter.) And John Bolton hated the Iran deal because he thought that that architecture could never work. And I find it hard to believe that he’s super onboard with the idea that you could do the same thing with North Korea.
MR. COSTA: But how much for this president – and you studied presidents, Peter, we all do. How much matters about the moment, the theater of the moment, versus the actual details that Anne’s talking about?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, look, the one thing about President Trump to remember is, first of all, he spent no time in government or the military before becoming president. He’s the first president in American history who hasn’t. There’s an obvious disadvantage to that. The advantage of that he’s not locked into the old ways of doing things. He is flexible. And he doesn’t care that he’s maybe seen as inconsistent, right? If he might have said something on a Twitter feed three months ago and he says something completely opposite today, it doesn’t bother him, whereas most politicians don’t like to be caught out like that. So he is willing to make deals perhaps that other presidents might not. He doesn’t care much about the details. He wants to make sure he has something that seems like a win, and something that, you know, won’t fall apart before he leaves office, obviously, if the details aren’t there. But he’s not a nuclear expert. He’s never gone through this before.
MS. THOMAS: But he may not even need – I mean he doesn’t necessarily need to come out of that meeting with Kim Jong-un with an actual concrete deal. As long as he can come out of it and say for his fans, for a lot of other people: You know what? We made progress. And I got Kim Jong-un to agree to something. He will call that a win.
MR. BAKER: Well, sure.
MR. CROWLEY: And I think that’s right.
MR. COSTA: Final thought.
MR. CROWLEY: Because the public is not going to be so focused on are the inspectors getting access to all the sites, et cetera. There’s an interesting phrase in military theory, you escalate to de-escalate. And Donald Trump in some ways escalated by freaking everybody out, and it was a breakthrough issue. There was that false alarm in Hawaii where people were running to bomb shelters, you know, we might be struck by the North Koreans. Now, all of a sudden, the mood is completely changed, that’s behind us, people are breathing a sign of relief, and it feels like we’re safe again. And the details, I think, will be less important in the kind of grand reality show that is the Trump presidency than that emotional shift.
MR. COSTA: I mean, if you think about that, it is a shift. I remember last summer watching our phones as the president tweeted “fire and fury” about “little rocket man.” Now reporters are planning trips to Singapore to cover the summit. What a country. Diplomacy, you can’t predict it.
And that includes what’s happening in the Middle East. Another development there this week because Iran is trying to salvage the nuclear deal it struck in 2015, and at the same time as they’re doing that there has been a real spike in violence between Iran and Israel. Israel claims it has destroyed almost all of Iran’s military capabilities in Syria in retaliation for Iranian missile attacks. Meanwhile, interestingly, Russia is playing the role of intermediary in that conflict between Iran and Israel. A lot of players, but you got to follow all the parts, and Moscow has a significant stake here in Syria. Peter, you were Moscow’s – the bureau chief in Moscow for The New York Times. When you watched what’s happening in the Middle East between Iran and Israel and you see Putin interjecting himself, what does that tell you?
MR. BAKER: Putin is exactly where he wants to be this week. He wants to be the central player, the person who is an indispensable man, in effect, on the world stage. And we have in effect given him a lot of opening there in the – in the Middle East by pulling back some of our involvement there. This has been true not just under President Trump, but under President Obama the last few years. And he wants to be the person who is seen as the – as the broker.
What’s important to remember, though, is he is sort of Iran’s, you know, number-one enabler right now. Because he and Iran have worked together to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, they have changed the dynamics of where that civil war had been going prior to his involvement and they have upended, you know, the Israeli security situation. What Israel’s worried about more than the nuclear deal is Syria. Syria is seen, to them, to be an existential threat. If Iran is in Syria in a big way, they feel it very, very viscerally.
MS. GEARAN: Yeah, I mean, Israel is confronting now something that was really a very remote thought five or more years ago, which is a permanent and very dangerous, to them, Iranian presence on a border that was previously considered very safe and essentially is not set up for that kind of defense. And so that’s yet – that’s yet another troubled border for Israel, and they see, you know, they’ll essentially be sandwiched by Iranian proxies on two sides. And their argument to Putin is you got to help us put Iran in a box here. I think it’s very interesting – and it takes us back to Trump – that Israel is making that argument to Russia. Yes, to the United States too, in a different way. But the idea is, hey, you know, they can do it themselves. They don’t need the United States to be their intermediary. And clearly, Netanyahu thinks Putin has the power to do it.
MR. COSTA: And so Iran’s a big story with what’s happening in Syria, but then President Trump wades in this week into the region and makes his decision on the Iran nuclear deal, and it disrupts what’s happening inside of Iran. What do you make of the dynamic there, Michael, the hardliners versus President Rouhani? He’s been protective of the Iranian nuclear deal, he’s been trying to defend the process, but he’s under a lot of pressure inside of Iran.
MR. CROWLEY: He absolutely is. You know, Barack Obama’s theory of the case was that we could do a deal with Iran that would, among other things – and people forget one of the parent – one of the, you know, most important parents of the Iran nuclear deal was Bibi Netanyahu, because in the summer of I think 2012 there was a real feeling in Washington that the Israelis were going to strike the Iranian nuclear program, and that really got the Obama administration to feel like we’ve got to get something done in a peaceful way. And Obama’s theory of the case was we’ll solve that problem, but also can we start to change the relationship that we’ve had with Iran that has been so poisoned since the 1979 revolution and show the Iranian people that these moderates – relative moderates, reformers who are reaching out to the West, can actually accomplish something, and that the West can be trusted, that you can do a deal with the United States? The hardliners in Iran say you can never trust the United States, they’re going to stab you in the back.
Trump has come and swept all that away and, in fact, validated the theory of the hardliners, who say you can’t trust the Americans, they’ll stab you in the back, they’ll trick you. And that plays exactly into what the opponents of the deal within Tehran were warning, and I think it does pose a threat to the power of that, again, relatively moderate and reformist wing in Iranian politics.
MR. COSTA: What does this do, Shawna, to the price of oil abroad? What does it do to companies who are making deals with Iran?
MS. THOMAS: Well, it does a couple of things because one of the things that we did to bring everybody to the table back in 2014-2015, even a little before that, was we put – as in we, the United States of America – put a lot of secondary sanctions on other companies outside of our country – other banks, other countries – to basically punish them if they did deals with Iran. One of the things we lifted as part of the deal was we took some of that pressure off of other countries and companies so money could flow into Iran and kind of do some of the things that Obama wanted to happen in Iran. What they – what the administration has said is that we are going to put those secondary sanctions back on. So companies now, like Airbus, have to make a decision. Do we continue to do business with Iran, but then lock ourselves out of the American financial market? And most likely a company like Airbus is going to say, no, we probably need America, let’s keep on going.
But the other thing it – the Iran deal did was it allowed basically Iran to sell more oil to some parts of the world. And what we’ve already seen in the oil markets is that the price of oil has already started going up because of even the unrest around whether President Trump would or would not pull out of the deal. Now we know, oil prices are going up. There will be people who feel that at the pump in the United States, but for the most part we don’t do a lot of business – the U.S. does not do a lot of business with Iran in general. But it is – but gasoline prices, which people will be going to the pump, going to trips this summer, people might start to feel that.
MR. COSTA: How much of this, Peter, was about undoing the Obama legacy?
MR. BAKER: Well, a lot of it, obviously. Look, you know, there are two things going on here. One is President Trump’s fundamental core belief, to the extent that he has one, is that America has been shafted over the years. He’s been saying this since the 1980s. There’s no deal that America has entered, basically, since the 1980s that he thought was good enough, right, whether it be trade, whether it be security, whether it be this Iran deal. So he’s fundamentally convinced himself that he’s the only one who can make a better deal than all these other presidents.
And the second part is, yes, everything Obama did has a big scarlet O on it for him and this big target for a sledgehammer, whether it be his domestic policy or his foreign policy. If Obama did it, it must have been wrong. So, you know, that was always going to be a problem for this Iran deal.
MR. COSTA: The symbolism of going against President Obama’s legacy and his accomplishments and his record seems to be a big thing for the president, Anne. What about the move of the U.S. moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, another symbolic move?
MS. GEARAN: Yeah, I mean, there – this move will actually happen on Monday. It’s the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding on Monday, and that’s the day, obviously symbolically, that the embassy will move. And there we have Trump not only going against what Obama did, but what two previous presidents before Obama did as well. And Trump said it himself in the – in the – his remarks in Elkhart this week. He said over and over and over again presidents and administrations have said they would do this, they promised, and they didn’t do it, and I’m going to do it. And yes, he wants to do it because he thinks it’s the right thing. He’s surrounded by advisors who think it’s the right thing to do. But that idea that he could – he could do something by himself, by diktat, that other presidents and administrations before him had not was clearly appealing.
MR. BAKER: His favorite words are “first,” “most,” “best.” (Laughter.) Anything that qualifies, right, and that qualifies for a superlative like I’m the first one to do it, I’m going to do what nobody else did.
MR. CROWLEY: And another rationale behind striking Syria, his feeling that Barack Obama wouldn’t do it. He wasn’t the first – well, actually probably was the first American president to use military force against Syria. Not the first one to order missile strikes. But particularly as it pertained to Obama, he felt like Obama walked up to the line in the famous red line debate, didn’t do it, and Trump – and you heard that from people around him – saying he loved the fact that he did the thing that Obama wouldn’t do, and that really played into his –
MR. BAKER: Even though at the time he said Obama shouldn’t do it.
MR. CROWLEY: Exactly. Very important point.
MS. THOMAS: And he gets to say he follows through on his campaign promises. I mean, we have – pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal was a campaign promise. This situation of moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a campaign promise. And he’s been – he’s been running for reelection since the day after he took office. That is in the back of his head, too, and that plays well.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thanks, everybody. Great discussion.
And stay tuned for In Principle, where we’ll hear from former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. He’s a possible Democratic presidential contender in 2020. That’s next on In Principle on most PBS stations. Check your local listings.
And our conversation, it continues as ever online on the Washington Week Extra, where we’ll review the confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee for the CIA. You can find that later tonight at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend – (laughs) – and Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and your mom.