President Donald Trump strode side by side onto North Korean soil Sunday with its hard-line leader, Kim Jong Un, in a moment that was vintage Trump.
From regional airport hangar rallies that start with Air Force One rolling up to classic rock tunes to setting up dramatic Washington cliffhangers, to Trump’s ability to drive — and dominate — news cycles to becoming the first sitting American president to enter North Korea, stagecraft is paramount.
That penchant for drama, which creates instant video clips for the cable network the president watches religiously, was on full display last week during what turned into a three-country Asia swing.
First, there was a one-on-one meeting Friday at the G-20 summit in Japan with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then came the buildup to and dramatic scenes from his Saturday meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And, finally, his allegedly impromptu meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas.
But what, if anything, did Trump take away from those high-stakes meetings? Democratic lawmakers and the party’s 2020 presidential hopefuls say very little. “I don’t think we know if it works until there’s results,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told CNN on Sunday. “And we have seen a history here, especially in this case, where Donald Trump announces these summits, and nothing really comes out of it.”
Here are three ways the president’s Asia trip was a quintessential Trump performance.
We the North
“When Trump walked into North Korea, there’s no doubt that it was a historic moment. It was just classic Trump. He loves the splashy stuff,” said Daniel Davis, a retired Army officer and former adviser to the South Korean military. “A lot of people want to dismiss that, except that we had gone months with nothing going on with North Korea. Something flashy like this can revive it, and it looks like it has.
“Stepping across that line was a great honor. A lot of progress has been made. A lot of friendships have been made. And this has been, in particular, a great friendship,” Trump told reporters Sunday alongside Kim in yet another surreal moment. “So we’re going to go inside. We’re going to talk for a little while about different things. And a lot of really positive things are happening,”
Democratic lawmakers agree with Trump and Republicans that talking with Kim is better than the alternative — his government continuing nuclear tests that could help the Hermit Kingdom field an atomic arsenal. But just what Trump gained “inside” remains murky.
Kim appears to have agreed to continue his freeze on nuclear testing and to resume talks — but little else. In fact, four words were not uttered following their one-on-one meeting: Nuclear. Ballistic. Missile. Testing.
“I was in Hanoi for the last Trump-Kim summit. South Korean officials said a small deal was basically done, then [White House national security adviser] John Bolton convinced Trump to go for a home run,” Davis said. “Well, Bolton wasn’t on this trip. And it looks like Trump is going back to the plan that could actually work.”
What did Kim get? Lots of footage for use in his own country on state-run media showing him bringing the American leader onto North Korean soil.
Making a splash
White House officials signaled before the president left for Asia on Wednesday that a final trade deal with Xi was highly unlikely. They described Saturday’s mini-summit as Trump, a longtime New York real estate mogul, feeling out his Chinese counterpart.
They even warned against expecting any outcome. But Trump walked out of the meeting trumpeting vague pronouncements of a deal, while giving plenty to Xi.
For instance, Trump agreed to drop — for now — his threat to levy new tariffs as high as a 25 percent on an additional $300 billion in Chinese-made goods. Much-maligned Chinese technology firm Huawei can again purchase American-produced components, and China gets better terms from Washington for its students on visas. Trump got a little-explained vow from Xi to buy more American farm products and to resume stalled trade talks.
And he got a vote of confidence from a key GOP lawmaker.
“I’m glad China has chosen to return to the negotiating table. I urge President Trump to continue to stand strong against China’s many abuses,” Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said in a statement.
Some of Trump’s core supporters in his conservative base in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors have been hard hit by his tariff policies — and China’s retaliatory levies.
Political strategists say they detect some heartburn from those groups — but no exodus from Trump’s coalition.
“Trump didn’t come home with a single deal. All he did with China was kick the can down the road,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist. “But, no, I don’t believe that will make any difference when it comes to Trump’s base. I can’t imagine they’re ever going to turn against this president even though he can’t strike the deals he promises.”
And the Senate Finance chairman had a not-so-masked message for Trump before he even returned to Washington on Sunday night.
“Americans have made sacrifices for this trade war and we have to get a serious, enforceable deal with structural changes for this to be worth it in the end,” Grassley said. “Farmers I talk to in Iowa understand the need to hold China accountable. Americans are united on the need for China to end its unfair and mercantilist trade policies.”