Trump's Personal Approach To Policy On Display Ahead Of N. Korea Summit

May 9, 2018
Originally published on May 10, 2018 12:00 am

President Trump says he will greet three Americans released from North Korea when they land in the U.S. early on Thursday.

Trump tweeted out the news exactly a week after he first hinted on Twitter about the possible release of the detainees, urging the public to "stay tuned."

Like much of Trump's foreign policy, the messaging around the released Americans has mostly come from Trump himself.

Trump's hands-on approach to diplomacy will be put to the test in the coming weeks as he prepares to hold an unprecedented summit with North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

The return of the Americans is a victory for the United States and for Trump, as the administration heads into talks with North Korea.

While Trump has left open the possibility that the negotiations may fail, he's also raised the stakes by placing himself in the center of this complicated diplomatic maneuvering.

If the talks do not go well, Trump would likely face the political heat.

Instead of depending on his diplomats to convey his positions, Trump has often taken to Twitter to make his feelings on various international matters known.

He even publicly contradicted his former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on North Korea. Back in October, before the recent overtures between the U.S. and North Korea, Trump tweeted that he would not even bother with negotiations with Kim.

Now, the U.S. and North Korea are on better terms, but Trump has consistently faulted past presidents for failing to stop North Korea's nuclear program.

He says it's now up to him to solve the problem, leaving little room for error.

"You had various administrations, which left me a mess," Trump said last September regarding North Korea. "But, I'll fix the mess."

For Trump, politics is almost always personal and he has credited his warm rapport with China's President Xi Jinping with helping to bring North Korea to the table.

"I have a very excellent, as you know, relationship with President Xi," Trump said last month. "And I think that relationship is very important as to what's happening with North Korea."

Relying too heavily on his ability to bond with foreign leaders could pose risks for Trump, though.

"Believing in personal relations is one of the classic errors in foreign policy and I hope President Trump does not fall into that trap," said Angelo Codevilla, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.

Codevilla says personal connections will not supplant foreign leaders' interest in advancing their countries' agendas. When it comes to North Korea, Codevilla warned that Trump should be careful not to make concessions without securing actual commitments from Pyongyang.

Patrick Cronin, of the Center for a New American Security, said it makes sense that Trump would take center stage ahead of the high-profile meeting with Kim, but that ultimately what happens after the meeting will be more important.

"You can not stop there. That's the part that's supposed to catalyze a diplomatic process and then the hard work really begins," Cronin said.

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President Trump is expected to greet three Americans when they land in the United States after being detained in North Korea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo secured their release during a visit to North Korea to help arrange the upcoming summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe is here in the studio. Hi there, Ayesha.


CORNISH: So tell us what happened today, what President Trump is saying now about the release of these Americans.

RASCOE: He's saying this is a sign of how well things are going ahead of this meeting with Kim. He's saying the Americans seem to be in good health. And he's even thanking North Korea for taking this step. Here's what he had to say this morning.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Nobody thought this was going to happen. And I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go.

RASCOE: So he's obviously pleased with this development. Some experts I talked to, though, warn that the White House should make sure that it doesn't look like they are rewarding North Korea for releasing these Americans because then that could provide incentives for North Korea to continue to detain Americans in the future.

CORNISH: Now, what else do we know about what could come up at this summit?

RASCOE: Well, we - President Trump would not say when it would happen, but he said a time and a location has been chosen. He did rule out the DMZ. He had floated that as a possibility. What stands out to me, though, is that he's being really optimistic about this meeting.


TRUMP: And I think it will be very successful. But as I always say, who knows? Who knows what's going to happen? But it's going to be a very important event.

CORNISH: A very important event - what are the risks in raising expectations about the president's ability to negotiate with North Korea?

RASCOE: There definitely is some risk. President Trump likes to be front and center for all of these decisions, and he likes to make clear that he's in charge. He doesn't rely on spokespeople or diplomats to get his message out. But with a complicated and challenging issue like North Korea, if things go wrong, then he's out front getting blamed.

Another thing is that President Trump really likes to focus on his personal relationships with foreign leaders as a way to get his agenda done. But personal relationships really can only get you so far when it comes to foreign policy. It doesn't matter how much you get along. Leaders will look out for their own country's interests.

CORNISH: Obviously the stakes are high, but is there more of a risk putting so much focus on just this one meeting?

RASCOE: Experts I've talked to say yes because ultimately what comes after the meeting will be most important. Obviously all eyes will be on this summit. But the difficult part of these talks will be the behind-the-scenes, where the U.S. and North Korea will need to agree on what it means to denuclearize North Korea or - and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and how to implement that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe. She covers the White House. Thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.