President Donald Trump’s most vociferous defenders supported him, in large part, because the United States was not respected in the world, was not “winning,” and was being taken advantage of by hostile powers. Looking ahead to 2020, either the Democrats or a Republican challenger will have a golden opportunity to argue that Trump has made us less respected, has presided over a whole lot of losing and, most definitely, has been taken advantage of by hostile powers.
Conservative hawks who bemoaned President Barack Obama’s insufficient strength in standing up to the world’s aggressors have two choices now — either complain just as bitterly about Trump’s appeasement, or operate in a make-believe world. Trump’s own statements are a testament to his own weakness and need for self-delusion in order to preserve a patina of toughness. On Tuesday, he tweeted:
“Many good conversations with North Korea-it is going well! In the meantime, no Rocket Launches or Nuclear Testing in 8 months. All of Asia is thrilled. Only the Opposition Party, which includes the Fake News, is complaining. If not for me, we would now be at War with North Korea!”
(As an aside, let’s acknowledge that the mass shooting of journalists in Annapolis is still fresh as the president has returned to casting the media as the “other” — the lying opposition.)
Trump is mouthing the same claptrap that hawks like now-national security adviser John Bolton used to decry — praising the existence of talks as evidence of “success,” while the aggressor’s behavior does not change or actually worsens. Moreover, the notion that we would otherwise be at war amounts to, “If I didn’t go to Singapore, my escalating rhetoric would have led me to start a horrific war.” (It’s like complaining that he just had to snatch kids from their parents since he created a migrant crisis by initiating an inane “zero tolerance” policy.) As for Asian allies, South Korea has been none too pleased that Trump canceled joint military exercises, a unilateral concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that suggests Trump is willing to cut a democratic ally off at the knees to preserve the illusion that he is a great diplomat. China, however, is rightly delighted.
U.S. intelligence services confirm North Korea is expanding its missile program, secure in the belief Trump has been defanged. (“An NBC News report on Friday quoted officials saying U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months and may try to hide these while seeking concessions in talks with the United States.”) The Associated Press reported that “a leaked U.S. intelligence report and an analysis of satellite data suggest the North may be continuing its nuclear and missile activities despite a pledge to denuclearize. North Korea has been showering the United States and South Korea with goodwill gestures in recent months, including the shutdown of its main nuclear testing site and the release of three American detainees. But many experts say nothing it has done is consequential enough to be seen as a sign that the country is willing to fully surrender its nuclear weapons.”
CNN reported, as The Post first disclosed, that while Trump has been snookered, our intelligence professionals have not:
“A second official tells CNN the Trump administration plans to present the North Koreans with a detailed list of tasks they must undertake to begin a denuclearization process. The analysis is currently being circulated among other US intelligence agencies to see if they concur, the first official said. While the official would not detail the precise intelligence that has led to this conclusion, the agency utilizes satellite imagery, electronic intercepts and human intelligence gained from operatives.”
As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returns to North Korea to plead with Pyongyang to continue down the path of denuclearization, he surely must realize his boss has put him at a distinct disadvantage. Trump got a watered-down, nonspecific statement of good intentions while Kim could rightly claim to have vanquished a foolish U.S. president — who lavished Kim with praise, canceled military exercises with the South, ceased talk about maximum pressure and now thinks the North Korean nuclear threat is over. Why should the North Korean ruler move an inch when Trump is now so invested in declaring everything is now fine, perfectly fine?
Trump apologists have contorted themselves trying to justify horrendous policy blunders (a trade war, soaring debt, Russian appeasement). None is so glaring — or embarrassing — as the fantasy that Trump’s North Korea summit was a stroke of genius.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center-right perspective. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JRubinBlogger.