ROBERT COSTA: A breakthrough. After months of insults and threats, President Trump agrees to bilateral talks with North Korea. I’m Robert Costa. Inside the president’s high-stakes diplomatic gamble, tonight on Washington Week.
CHUNG EUI-YONG (South Korean National Security Office Chief): (From video.) I explained to President Trump that his leadership and his maximum pressure policy, together with international solidarity, brought us to this juncture.
MR. COSTA: President Trump prepares for a historic face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Can the dealmaker convince the dictator to dismantle his nuclear program? The president seems cautiously optimistic, writing in a tweet: “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!”
Plus, the longstanding rules of global trade are upended as Mr. Trump signs off on new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, ignoring opposition from Republicans, White House advisors, and U.S. allies. Japan calls it regrettable, China harmful, and South Korea says the tariffs are unjust. The president remains defiant.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) The actions we’re taking today are not a matter of choice, they’re a matter of necessity for our security.
MR. COSTA: We discuss it all with Kayla Tausche of CNBC, Peter Baker of The New York Times, Kimberly Atkins of The Boston Herald, and Manu Raju of CNN.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. A stunning turn of events in U.S. diplomacy this week as President Trump, who has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and called its leader “little rocket man,” accepted an invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un and discuss the rogue nation’s nuclear missile program. The details of that summit, of course, remain to be determined, and there was quick criticism and cheers from different parts of the political community for the president’s decision. But the decision itself, as Peter Baker wrote in today’s New York Times, was, quote, “shocking” and “not surprising.” “Mr. Trump’s decision to do what no other sitting president has done and meet in person with the Korean leader reflects an audacious and supremely self-confident approach to international affairs.” Peter continues: “Whether it is Middle East peace or trade agreements, Mr. Trump has repeatedly claimed that he can achieve what has eluded every other occupant of his office through the force of his own personality.”
Peter, welcome, again. A grand gesture from President Trump.
PETER BAKER: Yeah.
MR. COSTA: But what’s the plan?
MR. BAKER: (Laughs.) Well, look, I think he is having a good time. This is what he wants to be doing. This week he managed to surprise everybody. You used the word “stunning.” He loves that. He likes to be unpredictable. Good jobs numbers. He loved, I think, signing the trade tariffs. This is, for him, a chance to get back on top of the agenda, to set the momentum, and to control the narrative. And the narrative is a guy who’s breaking china and he’s doing things other presidents didn’t do.
Now, where is the plan from here on? That gets much harder. It’s easy to say, yes, I’d be happy to talk to you, but then come the details. Where? When? Under what conditions? What kind of preparation do you do? We don’t normally have presidents meet with – we have never had a president meet with a sitting North Korean leader, and we don’t have the president meet with these kinds of leaders in these kind of circumstances, for very good reasons. So if he’s rewriting the rulebook, we have yet to see how far it’s going to go.
MR. COSTA: Kayla, you were there at the White House when the South Korean diplomats came and made the announcement. It’s being brokered by South Korea. They brought the message to President Trump. He quickly accepted. What was it like to see it up close, and what did it tell you about the way this will all unfold?
KAYLA TAUSCHE: It was a little bit of mayhem, to be quite honest, to be onsite there because the president came into the briefing room the first time ever, he teased this major announcement in a reality show type of way, and then he was milling about the West Wing. Some reporters were going up to him. He was being counseled by the vice president. And then you saw the national security adviser sort of shuttling very quickly in and out of the press secretary’s office as they tried to figure out what they were going to say, if they were going to say anything, and whether they were actually going to make the commitment to take this meeting. It was incredibly stressful from a reporting standpoint to try to nail down exactly what was going to happen and whether anything was going to happen, and I can only imagine how it was on the other side of those doors as well.
MR. COSTA: A big moment, Kim. But when you look at history, so many presidents have tried, and they’ve tried and failed with North Korea. Think about President Bill Clinton in 1994, the nuclear freeze. You think of the tensions with President George W. Bush talking about the Axis of Evil, including North Korea in that. What does President Trump think he can do to be different from his predecessors?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Well, one thing that President Trump does not lack is hubris and the thought that he – the belief that he can always broker a better deal than any other president. So I think that’s what’s launching him into this. But as you point out, this is a difficult thing to do. A lot of people, a lot of presidents who are surrounded by a lot of smart people who put a lot of time and effort in trying to negotiate some sort of deal with North Korea have walked away with no deal. North Korea has its own interests, depending on whether it’s the reduction of sanctions or help with oil or other things. But the one thing that they are not incentivized at all to do is to give up their nukes. That’s what – the one thing that Kim Jong-un sees as protecting that country, especially seeing what has happened – what happened to Moammar Gadhafi, what happed to Saddam Hussein once they gave their weapons away. That’s not how he wants to go out. So I can’t fathom a situation – any deal that the president can cut that will make Kim Jong-un easily walk away from its nuclear arsenal.
MR. COSTA: Another group that’s trying to fathom all of this – and, Manu, I was following your reporting all week on Capitol Hill – congressional Republicans. They control the House and the Senate, and they’ve been pretty wary, but somewhat encouraging, about this surprise development. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Korea said to North Korea in a statement: Don’t try to play him. That would be the end of you.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, it was a difficult road for the Republicans to walk because, as you recall, during the Obama years they went after him very hard over a lot of his statements that he made. I remember famously in the 2008 campaign trail he said that he would negotiate with foreign leaders from Iran and the like without preconditions. And he was hammered, not just from Republicans but also by Hillary Clinton as well. And what is Donald Trump doing here? He’s essentially negotiating without preconditions. So Republicans, they want to be encouraging because obviously there’s more – it’s positive to do something diplomatically than get into a military conflict with another nuclear-armed nation, with a – with a rogue leader like North Korea. But at the same time, they don’t know where this is going.
I thought – to Peter’s earlier point, I thought it was very – what you saw at the White House today was that it’s a lot easier to say yes to a meeting than to actually carry through with this meeting. Sarah Sanders was all over the map about exactly what is – the White House expects out of this meeting. She said that there need to be verifiable and concrete steps that need to be taken before moving forward. Well, she even – she even kept the door open that potentially this May meeting may not happen. And then afterwards an anonymous White House official had to walk all that back and said the meeting is going to happen. It just shows that this happened in a very hasty manner, and there are really no clearer plans to carry this through at this moment.
MR. COSTA: Peter, when you think about beyond the preconditions that may be part of this meeting, there’s a more fundamental issue. The Kim family, going back generations, has always had mistrust of the United States be the core of its ideology. What’s going to make them suddenly turn around?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s the problem for the president. What does he have to give them, right? Now they’ve applied what he called maximum pressure to get them to the table. Fair enough. Obviously, you can let up on some of these sanctions in exchange for something. But I think you’re exactly right. I don’t see why the Kim family would want to give up what they think is their only real leverage. And the kinds of things that they would ask for would be evacuation of all American troops from the Korean Peninsula, for instance. That’s something that no other president would probably consider.
And in Donald Trump, we don’t have somebody who has firm red lines because, as we’ve already seen, he said he wasn’t going to talk with Kim Jong-un unless he denuclearized. Well, he’s not denuclearized yet. He might. And he’s agreed to talk anyway. So with President Trump, you never know for sure what might he agree to, what he might not agree to. And so I think a lot of allies right now, particularly in Japan but also South Korea, are nervous about that. Is he going to give a deal that actually would work against their interests, as far as they’re concerned?
MR. COSTA: And what do you make of the state of the sanctions? Are they working? Is that what brought Kim to the table?
MS. TAUSCHE: Well, the hard part about the sanctions is the best data that we have to go off comes out of China, which is rather opaque. There are some estimates that say that the North Korean economy, its exports were down about 30 percent last year. Kim Jong-un mentioned the onerous effect that the sanctions have had on that country in a new year’s address. The fact that he would be willing to even publicly acknowledge that the economy and his people are suffering means that it’s reached a point where maybe he feels somewhat vulnerable.
But from an economic standpoint, I think that there need to be comparisons perhaps drawn to Iran, a nation that feels like sanctions have reached a choke point, to the point where they need to borrow money, they need to export their goods, they need to access very basic resources that they can get. And so they’re willing to say just about anything. But it’s actually verifying what they say they will do that is so difficult, as the president is now finding out, because that is a deal that he is also trying to go back and rework the fine print on. And I think that’s going to become an important corollary here.
MR. COSTA: That’s a good point, because what happens, Kim, if the deal falls apart? What happens if this thing blows up diplomatically? What’s the risk for the president, his entire administration?
MS. ATKINS: I mean, we don’t know. These are people who just a few short weeks ago were comparing the sizes of each other’s nuclear buttons. (Laughter.) We really don’t know what will come out of this type of bilateral meeting between these two people. We don’t – and we don’t even know if this meeting will happen. I mean, you’re talking about the administration folks walking back – going back and forth about what it is. The president tweeted today in saying the meeting, if it happens. (Laughs.)
MR. COSTA: Well, he just tweeted tonight.
MS. ATKINS: Right.
MR. COSTA: He tweeted right before the show. He said: The deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the world. Time and place to be determined. We think maybe Switzerland, maybe a neutral site elsewhere?
MR. RAJU: Yeah, that’s what it sounded like. The White House didn’t have any real clear answers. But that tweet was remarkable, saying the deal in the making. But the White House –
MS. ATKINS: If completed.
MR. RAJU: Yeah. And then the White House today suggested the negotiations really haven’t even started yet. So what deal is it exactly in the making? A lot of questions. And two months is just not a lot of time to resolve these questions.
MR. COSTA: But, Peter, you wrote today about the norms in United States politics have been shredded apart by President Trump. Now diplomatic norms being shredded apart. Have we seen in history a president or a leader doing this kind of bold move, and maybe it works?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s the argument, right? You know, for all those chattering-class people who say that I’m shattering norms, what about Bush? What about Obama? What about Clinton? Didn’t work for them, so why not try something new? Why not shatter some norms, because the old ways weren’t working? Fair argument. But there’s a lot of reasons why people haven’t done it this way. And we’ll see whether he’s able to overcome them. You don’t normally start off with the top guy in the negotiations.
Usually you bring in your lower people first, you see what areas of agreement you might have, see if you can escalate to the higher level, until you finally have a deal ready to be made by the two heads of state. You’re starting now backwards. You’re starting with the heads of state and presumably then they’ll pass it off to the lower level negotiators. And that is a big risk, because it could easily blow up in his face, and then you’re back to, what? The nuclear button insults and so forth. So there’s a lot of risk here.
MR. RAJU: And nothing about this has been normal. I mean, the way that this was rolled out yesterday too. But when you were there, the South Koreans announcing a major policy decision for the United States, without the United States making its own public announcement. What a strange situation, that I think has not precedent whatsoever.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there on North Korea, but to that point President Moon of South Korea, one of the most intriguing characters in this entire drama. He has more of a softer position towards North Korea, trying to handle all the regional relationships. Used President Trump to try to bring down North Korea a little bit in terms of its temperament. What a story.
But let’s turn to domestic policy, and President Trump’s decision to move forward with new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, despite the strong opposition from Republicans and U.S. allies who say the move will spark a trade war. The tariffs will go into effect in about two weeks, adding 25 percent to the cost of U.S. steel imports and 10 percent to aluminum. Canada and Mexico, however, are exempt from the initial implementation, pending NAFTA negotiations. The president’s fundamental goal here? To punish countries like China that have flooded the global market.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: (From video.) America will remain open to modifying or removing the tariffs for individual nations, as long as we can agree on a way to ensure that their products no longer threaten our security.
MR. COSTA: Many Republicans supported more targeted efforts.
HOUSE SPEAKER PAUL RYAN (R-WI): (From video.) I actually think there is a better and more effective way to address unfair trade practices, and that is to go after those practices specifically.
MR. COSTA: When you look, Kayla, at what’s happening here, there’s a big jobs number came out this week – 313,000 jobs in February were added, unemployment’s at 4.1 percent. Yet, the president seems compelled to move on trade. What’s been the reaction in the market and in the world?
MS. TAUSCHE: Well, the market reaction was somewhat muted this week because what we saw the president announce was a dramatic softening of what he had previously been suggesting this policy would look like. I mean, it’s basically the art of the deal in practice. You say the toughest version of what you think you could possibly do, you get critics to come to the table and basically beg for some sort of tailoring or softening, and then when you eventually announce it you have most people on board with where you are. Just tonight he tweeted that they’re working on a deal for Australia potentially to be exempt.
And he’s created out of this issue sort of a grab-bag of campaign priorities. He’s tying NAFTA renegotiation, right-sizing of trade deficits, NATO funding all to this issue, to get allies and adversaries alike to the negotiating table. He wants them there in the next 15 days. And he’s creating this issue as the venue to do that.
MR. COSTA: Is it working in the sense that are allies retaliating with their own sanctions – not their own sanctions – their own tariffs, their own trade moves? Or are they just trying to negotiate with the president right now?
MS. TAUSCHE: Well, we saw the specter of that back in 2002-2003, when President George W. Bush announced similar tariffs that were actually higher than what President Trump announced on steel this week. And the WTO overturned that. Europe had a list of politically sensitive goods that they were going to levy equal if not greater tariffs on. But the WTO overturned the tariffs before that actually went into place. The Europeans are just dusting off this list from 15 years ago, revisiting a lot of those items. At the end of the day, they are from extremely politically sensitive areas – Wisconsin, Kentucky – you can figure out who they’re trying to target there.
MR. COSTA: The politics of this play into it, perhaps, Kim. You look at what’s happening in Pennsylvania next week. You have a special election for the U.S. House in steel country. Was that part of the White House’s decision-making here?
MS. ATKINS: Oh, I’m sure that it was. I’m sure that went into it. And, look, this is a president who when there is chaos and when things aren’t going his way – say, for example, with the Mueller investigation – his safe spot, he retreats back to his nationalist policies that he campaigned on. In the case of these tariffs, this is something he’s advocated long before his political career. He’s – he believes that a strong U.S. economy depends on protectionism of industries like steel. So this is something that he feels his political gut is right on. So even though Republicans were almost unitedly against this plan – and there’s a lot of fear that at a time that Republicans would love to be doing a victory lap about the tax bill, which is growing more popular, these jobs numbers; heading into the midterms, they think that that’s a winning combination – the president’s going to still come in and do something which a lot of Republicans are worried will reverse those numbers, might cause more turmoil in the stock market – although this is sort of a scaled-back version of what he originally campaigned on. So it’s really a tension within the party here.
MR. COSTA: Democrats seem to be pretty split.
MR. RAJU: Yeah, you know, Democrats have a hard time praising the president for anything, even if they may agree with him on this policy. But Republicans, they’re mostly united against him. You saw the Republican leadership. Paul Ryan had some muted criticism, but was critical. Mitch McConnell was pretty quiet for the most part, but he did criticize on a couple of occasions. You did see some chairman and rank-and-file members in the House and Senate really come out aggressively against this plan. But I think what you saw here, though, more largely, what was so significant about this week, this was the first time we’ve seen a significant policy divide between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House really play out in the Trump presidency. You’ve seen some splits over things that he has said, but not necessarily on things that he has done. And this is the first time we have seen that, on this tariffs issue, because in large part it really goes against the bedrock Republican orthodoxy, and that’s something that the president simply just does not agree with.
MR. COSTA: But this was something the president’s been talking about for his whole life. On trade, he’s always talked about wanting to have tariffs. And he’s been encouraged by Peter Navarro, his trade advisor; as Kim said, that more nationalist wing at the White House; Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary. You’ve seen an ideological shift, perhaps, inside of this White House.
MR. BAKER: Well, and forgot to mention that Gary Cohn, his national economic advisor, resigned more or less as a result of this this week. And they had a meeting while – right before announcing the tariffs in which Gary Cohn was sitting on the back wall, and the president starts ribbing him saying he’s really a globalist but I like him anyway, and he’s going to go off and make a couple hundred more million dollars, and that’s true. I mean, like, Gary Cohn is a globalist, if that’s a, you know, neutral word, in a White House where that’s considered a bad word, right? He is now on the outs and his philosophy is on the outs. And it is because of what you said and what Kim said, which is this is one of the few things the president has in his gut. It is a core belief for him. Many other things he kind of could go one way or the other, aren’t things that he’s particularly wedded to. Trade, the idea that we’re getting shafted as a country, is a bedrock principle for him.
MR. COSTA: And, Kayla, I mean, people inside of the West Wing were telling me they’re urging the president – they’re saying the economy’s strong, the market’s strong, but why do you feel it’s so necessary to go after these tariffs? And they say that he’s trying to reflect the grievance of his base about the global economy.
MS. TAUSCHE: Well, and they tried to warn him that if you do this you will undo all of the good that has been done for the economy and the goodwill that’s been done within your party during the tax reform fight, where they basically had a detente over all trade issues while they were trying to get that done. And he has data points that show that the naysayers have been wrong in the past. I mean, all of the newspaper headlines before the election said if Trump wins the markets will plummet, and instead they did exactly the opposite. So he can point to that and say show me some real data, this is theory these are not facts, and we’ll have to see what actually happens.
MR. COSTA: We going to see any legislation on Capitol Hill to try to bind the president’s hands a little bit?
MR. RAJU: There’s talk of that. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who is very critical of this president, announced his plans to try to prevent the president from moving forward. It’s going to be difficult to get through because you’re going to need a veto-proof majority. The president’s not signing that into law, and it’s not clear whether or not the Republican leadership, given their desire to work with this president, and really if they want to pick a – start a war with this president ahead of a key midterm season where they want to be united, on the same page, my guess is the Republican leadership will try to convince him to back off administratively, not try to go after him legislatively, and hope that this fight will go and get into the rearview mirror.
MR. COSTA: Like Senator Johnson, a Republican of Wisconsin, he’s saying, Kim, just go after China, don’t go after U.S. allies.
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, that’s what they’re hoping will happen here, that in the actual implementation of this it will be very pointed.
MR. COSTA: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for being with us tonight, and thanks, everybody, for watching.
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And our conversation will continue online with the Washington Week Extra, where we will discuss new developments in the Russia probe. Every week there’s more, and we’ll discuss it all. You can find that later tonight and all weekend long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
I’m Robert Costa. Enjoy the weekend.