Donald Trump’s approach to North Korea has always been an intensely personal one—the president contended that his sheer force of will and negotiating prowess would win the day, and rather than use intermediaries, he planned for a face-to-face meeting, with himself and Kim Jong Un on either side of a table.
So Trump’s notice on Thursday that he was canceling the June 12 summit in Singapore was fitting. It arrived in the form of a letter that appears to have been written by the president himself. The missive features a Trumpian mix of non sequiturs, braggadocio, insults, flattery, and half-truths. Whether the dramatic letter marks the end of the current process or is simply a negotiating feint, it matches the soap-operatic series of events that preceded it. Either way, it displays the ongoing conflict between Trump’s desire for pageantry and credit and his longstanding dictum that one must be willing to walk away from the negotiating table.
The U.S. had previously downplayed North Korean threats to cancel the summit, but a statement issued Thursday in Pyongyang was apparently too much for Trump to tolerate. North Korea’s vice foreign minister called Vice President Mike Pence “ignorant and stupid” and said the U.S. must decide whether it wants to “meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” (In a television interview on Monday referencing Kim’s aversion to the so-called “Libya model” of denuclearization, Pence had remarked: “You know, as the president made clear, this will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jong Un doesn’t make a deal.” Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear program in 2003 and was killed following an unrelated U.S. intervention 2011.) Trump’s letter indicated he had decided against the meeting room, at least for the moment, while leaving the showdown possible.
“Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting,” Trump says. Here, the president is employing his characteristic liberty with the truth. He announced the date and location of the summit only two weeks ago, part of an elaborate PR rollout that included teases of the announcement and the minting of a commemorative coin.
Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place. You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.
Seeking to respond to the North Korean statement’s threat of a showdown, Trump produces a strange juxtaposition, saying the summit would have been good and warning of nuclear war even as he pulls out. Then the president changes his tone abruptly.
“I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only that dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you,” he writes, adding that North Korea’s release of three American hostages earlier this month “was a beautiful gesture and was very much appreciated.” It looked like possibly the first public acknowledgment from the president that he had spoken directly to Kim Jong Un but, also in Trumpian fashion, left unclear what exactly happened or what exactly he meant.
In closing, Trump writes, “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write”—a confusing suggestion, given that it is he and not Kim who called the summit off.
Tonally, the letter is vintage Trump, reminiscent of the notes he used to send to reporters when he took issue with their work. When giving speeches, Trump has at times used speechwriters, but their words often sound odd in Trump’s mouth. The effect is a little like listening to someone speak a foreign language competently but with a strong accent: He can do it, but it doesn’t sound natural. Tuesday night, he told a political gathering, “Your vote in 2018 is every bit as important as your vote in 2016,” then quickly backtracked: “Although I’m not sure I really believe that, but you know. I don’t know who the hell wrote that line,” he said, to laughter. The Boston Globe reported this week on how staffers have tried to learn to ape his diction, though given the stakes and Trump’s insistence on his personal role, it seems likely this letter is his own.
So is the feeling of personal affront that runs through it. The U.S., confident in its position of power, has tended to look the other way in international negotiations when adversaries pop off verbally, content to win on substance. For Trump, however, style is substance, and provocations like North Korea’s latest statements are too much to bear.
Trump has desperately desired credit for bringing North Korea to the table. In the letter, he writes, “We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant.” Labeling something irrelevant is a common Trump tell that he values something highly. He and his allies portrayed the summit as proof that he had succeeded where other presidents had not. The North Koreans also wanted a U.S. agreement to meet, feeling that getting Washington to sit down would legitimize them. But in his rush to notch a win, Trump did not extract concrete assurances about when and whether North Korea would denuclearize. Disagreements on this question culminated in Pyongyang’s statement and then Trump’s cancelation.
Since at least The Art of the Deal, Trump has been adamant that a negotiator must be willing to walk away from the table, and he has argued that the Iran nuclear deal was flawed because then-Secretary of State John Kerry was too eager to make a deal. As I wrote last week, however, real-estate deals do not work the same way as international diplomacy. Kim arguably got what he wanted—an American agreement to meet—while Trump did not get what he wanted, which was an actual meeting. This is in keeping with how North Korea has expertly played the diplomatic game for years, half-agreeing to steps and then pulling out at the last moment.
But Trump may be just as glad to have pushed the summit away. He has reportedly been feeling apprehensive about the meeting and has not been willing to immerse himself in detailed briefings to prepare for it. Writing a letter like this one keeps Trump away from a nuts-and-bolts negotiation where he might feel overmatched and allows him to stay in the realm of rhetorical jousting—his natural milieu.