National Security & Defense

By Failing in Hanoi, Trump Almost Succeeds

President Trump at a news conference following his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 28, 2019. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)
The president defied political temptation and did the right thing by walking away from the table.

A couple of years ago, opponents of Donald Trump’s presidential bid warned that a Trump presidency would be a crazy spectacle. Jeb Bush famously said that Trump was a chaos candidate who would be a chaos president.

Some even conjured various wild scenarios that might unfold under a President Trump. They said it might look something like this: As tensions flared in some hot spot — the Middle East or maybe along the India–Pakistan border — or as the president conducted perilous negotiations with, say, North Korea, he would be distracted or bedeviled with some sort of domestic scandal.

Well, I don’t know if anybody predicted the specific details of Wednesday’s cavalcade of crazy, but if they did, they should collect their door prize.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former “fixer” and vice president of the Trump Organization, owed his career to the fact that he would happily be his boss’s pet snake. By his own admission, Cohen proudly did the president’s “dirty deeds” (his words), likening himself to the Tom Hagen character in The Godfather. He threatened anyone who crossed Trump, paid off inconvenient women, and boasted with a loser’s false courage how he would take a bullet for his boss. He celebrated, with an alacrity rarely matched by Stalin’s henchmen, his employer’s near-superhuman genius and empathy.

Then, on Wednesday, as he stopped by Congress before he heads to prison, he shed his old skin, the way snakes can, and tried on a new role of martyr and moralist. It’s possible his professed redemption is sincere. It certainly seemed like it at times. But one needn’t be a cynic to doubt it.

Regardless, Cohen’s testimony seemed designed to simultaneously enrage the president in every way possible and ingratiate himself with his left-wing critics. Cohen impugned the president’s character, his intelligence, honesty, and wealth. He called Trump a draft-dodging racist and grifter. If I had to guess, his testimony was framed in the best way possible to compensate for the fact that Cohen could not corroborate the most extreme versions of the Russia-collusion theory, which is a political Holy Grail for Democrats and much of the media.

Meanwhile, Trump was in Hanoi, Vietnam — a locale he studiously avoided visiting in his youth by claiming to have bone spurs — to negotiate with the murderous dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

The summit, like the first one, was ill-considered. It rested on the assumption that Trump, the world’s greatest dealmaker, could charm Kim and the North Korean regime out of its nuclear program. The worry from foreign-policy experts across much of the ideological spectrum was that Trump would blunder into a deal just for the sake of being able to declare victory. Rumored concessions leaked out in the media as if through an open faucet.

And then, it didn’t happen. The summit was a failure on its own terms, and ironically, that made it a kind of victory for Trump. The political tumult in Washington gave Trump every personal incentive to come up with any deal he could in order to change the subject and have something to boast about. This was, after all, part of the political rationale for his declaration of an emergency to build the wall at the border: It changed the subject from his defeat in the post-government-shutdown budget deal.

I have long argued that the North Koreans can’t be talked out of their nuclear program because their nuclear program is central to the rationale for the regime’s entire existence. It would be like talking Hitler and the Nazi regime out of their desire for conquest and their obsessions with the Jews; it’s simply the nature of the regime. You cannot reason a leopard to abandon its spots. It’s doubtful Trump fully recognizes this yet, but that’s irrelevant. He recognized enough: Any deal he could have gotten with Kim would have been worse than doing what he did — walk away from the table. Whether he came to this conclusion on his own or was cajoled into it by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton is irrelevant, too.

One can rightly bemoan or lament the fact that the Trump presidency made the Cohen spectacle possible in the first place. But that doesn’t change the fact that the president defied political temptation and did the right thing.

© Tribune Content Agency LLC

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