Read: After raising the stakes for North Korea summit, Trump walks away
“Know when to walk away from the table,” Trump wrote in his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal. Yet far too often, he hasn’t seemed to recognize the moment. As I have written, Trump has folded in nearly every high-stakes negotiation.
This includes his first summit with Kim, in which Trump left Singapore with little to show except a spectacle. It includes the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the as-yet-unratified replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement that many analysts say is just a slight variation on its predecessor. Gun control, his threats to stop funding to countries that vote against the United States, his showdown with Democrats over border security: Time and again, it’s Trump who flinches. Most recently, he has scaled back his calls for a fast, complete withdrawal of American troops from Syria. Within four months of his inauguration, foreign leaders had sized Trump up as an easy mark.
No wonder that South Korean President Moon Jae-in was taken off guard by Trump’s decision to shut down the Vietnam summit. Moon had reportedly planned a major speech Friday to build on progress from the talks. It wasn’t a bad bet: Trump had hyped the summit as a chance for a major victory, and Michael Cohen’s stunning testimony in Washington on Wednesday, which wrenched the spotlight away from Trump, gave the president all the more reason to want to strike a deal. Instead, Trump took his own advice from three decades ago and left when he couldn’t get a favorable agreement.
Why hasn’t Trump shown this kind of resolve sooner? One reason that Trump is especially vulnerable in negotiations with foreign leaders is that he is neither well informed on the issues nor especially willing to put in the time to learn, meaning he comes to a negotiating table already tilted against him.
Trump has also often started from a position of weakness, especially in domestic affairs. He was the one asking for things. He wanted to repeal and replace Obamacare; he wanted to build the wall. And Congress, for various reasons, had serious hesitations about both. That made walking away harder for him. In real estate, there’s always another deal to cut somewhere else. But there’s only one Obamacare to repeal, and only one Congress to negotiate with. Trump has much at stake in the North Korea negotiations, but Kim has even more.
The peculiarity of Trump’s hard-nosed approach came into relief during a press conference before he departed. The president was asked about Otto Warmbier, the American student who died shortly after being returned to the United States from North Korean captivity in 2017. His family says he was “brutally tortured,” and Warmbier returned to the United States in a coma. At the time, Trump was unsparing in his response.