When a reporter asked President Donald Trump last May whether he would ever meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump didn’t flinch. “If it would be appropriate for me to meet him, I would absolutely. I would be honored to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg News.
Boasting that he had just made "breaking news," Trump added with pride: “Most political people would never say that."
That paled in comparison to the breaking news Thursday night, when the White House confirmed that Trump had accepted Kim’s invitation for the first meeting between an American president and a North Korean leader.
But it spotlighted an instinct that has defined Trump’s early foreign policy: say the things others wouldn’t say; do the things they didn’t dare.
“He likes to be the first. He likes doing things no one has ever done before,” one senior Trump official said.
Trump’s taboo-breaking instinct most recently on clear display in his December decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a pledge several presidents had made but, on the counsel of advisers and fellow world leaders, decided to shelve. Trump officials say that was a key factor behind the president’s thinking, something he made clear in a Dec. 6 statement from the White House: “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” Trump said. “Today, I am delivering.”
The allure of a bold gesture also helped motivate Trump’s surprise airstrikes last spring to punish Syrian regime forces for the use of chemical weapons. The Obama administration spent years debating military options in Syria that it never acted on. Trump — who ordered the attack from his Mar-a-Lago resort in south Florida — made it look easy.
The principle even applies to Trump’s stubborn overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the president has tried to befriend in the face of overwhelming political opposition. Special counsel Robert Mueller may yet find that Trump has ulterior motives. But Trump’s outreach to Russia is also consistent with a desire to do what the foreign policy establishment — against which he partly campaigned — insists can simply not be done.
Trump will have another chance to shock and awe the world in May, when he must again decide whether to extend the Iran nuclear deal or walk away from a seven-nation accord. Trump officials have bluntly warned alarmed European allies that he is deadly serious about abandoning the deal once and for all if they don’t find a way to strengthen or supplement it. Some doubt that it can be done without driving Iran out of the agreement, potentially risking a military confrontation with Tehran.
Trump’s grand gestures may make for high drama — but they come with real danger, especially when made by a figure with no experience or expertise in foreign policy.
Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, for instance, likely snuffed any near-term hope of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, according to many regional experts. The limited Syria air strike has underscored Trump’s unclear policy towards the country, critics say, where the regime has recently mounted so many chlorine gas attacks that Trump is reportedly considering another military strike.
And a naïve desire to befriend Putin, members of both parties argue, prevents Trump from pushing back against Russian political meddling and leaves European allies questioning whether they can rely on the U.S. for protection from Putin.
Some Trump allies argued on Thursday that it was the president’s very record of defying convention that led to Kim’s unexpected invitation. Trump’s glee in shocking the Council on Foreign Relations set, they maintained, left Kim fearful that the U.S. president might do what nearly everyone in Washington called unthinkable: risk the deaths of millions in Asia by attacking his country. They cited the comments of North Korean defector and former regime official Ri Jong-ho, who said in remarks at the Wilson Center in Washington on Wednesday that Kim “is afraid that the U.S. will launch a preventative strike.”
It is equally possible, many analysts argued Thursday, that the North Korean dictator is not afraid at all, but empowered — and drawing Trump into a trap that will enhance Kim’s domestic mystique while buying himself time and political goodwill in South Korea and beyond.
U.S. officials have spent years studying Kim, building a psychological profile of the young tyrant and looking for ways to manipulate him. But the North Koreans have been closely watching the U.S.. They undoubtedly noticed Trump’s obvious excitement about the idea of meeting Kim, which dates to at least mid-2016.
And they surely were gratified to learn that, on receiving the news of Kim’s invitation, Trump could barely contain himself. The president made a rare appearance in the White House press room to alert reporters himself that a “major” announcement would be coming later that night.
After the news broke, ABC News reported that Trump had discussed the upcoming announcement with its network’s top White House reporter, Jonathan Karl. When Karl asked whether the announcement involved talks between the U.S. and North Korea. "It’s almost beyond that,” Trump replied.
“Hopefully," he added, "you will give me credit.”