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Negotiating with North Korea Isn’t a Walk in the Park

Kim Jong Un meets scientists and technicians in the field of researches into nuclear weapons in this undated photo released March 9, 2016. (KCNA via Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: what President Trump can expect when he meets with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un; the New York Times takes a swing at Devin Nunes and misses; the increasingly insufferable White House Correspondents’ Dinner; and the steadfast refusal to embrace a single standard for public discourse, and a slew of important bits of political news.

What to Expect When You Sit Across the Table from North Korea

It seems like every day now brings some once-unimaginable statement of goodwill from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. It’s difficult to trust that regime, but like the old poster on The X-Files said, “I want to believe.”*

Keeping diplomatic developments coming at a head-snapping pace, the South Korean government said on Sunday that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, had told President Moon Jae-in that he would abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States agreed to formally end the Korean War and promise not to invade his country.

Want to know what to expect from a Trump–Kim summit, and what it’s like to negotiate with the North Koreans? I recently had a chance to pick the brain of Robert Carlin, who has more experience in interacting with the North Koreans than almost any other American. Currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Carlin was an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency from 1971 to 1989. Then he moved to the U.S. State Department, taking part in all negotiations with the North Koreans during the Clinton presidency. During the Bush administration, he became a senior policy adviser to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, the international group that implemented the 1994 nuclear deal Clinton struck with Pyongyang. Altogether, Carlin has made 25 trips to North Korea, and he’s among the few outsiders who have ever visited sites like North Korea’s uranium-enrichment plant in Yongbyon.

“They are good at their game . . . When they get precise in their presentation, it’s important to pay attention — they mean what they say,” Carlin says. “But it’s often only possible to understand what they mean by having a good grasp of their previous positions. . . . My experience is that Americans sometimes don’t recognize progress when they see it from the North Koreans, and thus may miss openings.”

*Wanting to believe is not the same as believing.

The New York Times’s Half-Empty Perspective on Devin Nunes

In March, when I was writing my lengthy profile of Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he mentioned that other publications were working on profiles of him as well. This weekend, the New York Times unveiled its profile of Nunes, contending that he “displays a deep mistrust of the expert consensus on reality.” Mollie Hemingway tears it to pieces over at The Federalist.

I also notice that comments such as this in the Times article . . .

“He’d go out to these hinterlands and run into security guys there, and they’d give him crazy ideas,” the former committee staff member says. “He wasn’t discerning. These guys might have something interesting that’s one piece of the whole puzzle, but he’d think whatever they had to say was the whole truth.” Then, when Nunes brought back that information to Washington and intelligence officials would try to put it in context for him — or correct any misinformation — he would become suspicious. “He didn’t take people at face value,” a former government official recalls, “and didn’t always believe leadership.”

. . . are the glass-half-empty view of the same Nunes actions I wrote about. (I presume this quote is from a Democratic committee staff member.) Here’s how Nunes described his work on the intel committee to me:

“We go off the beaten path, taking cars and trains,” Nunes says. “You can only truly learn what’s going on in a country if you talk to people outside the bubble. In my mind, if I meet with someone and they’re just repeating the conventional wisdom or reading talking points, it’s a red flag” that there’s something more to uncover.”

Is it the right way to do the job? Eh, you can travel into the sticks too much or too little, but I hardly think it’s ipso facto evidence to support the Times piece’s thesis that Nunes is a nutty conspiracy theorist.

Wait, Nunes “didn’t take people at face value and didn’t always believe leadership”? Is that a criticism? Isn’t that the trait we would want to have in a person doing congressional oversight?

The Times is correct that there’s bad blood between former committee chairman Mike Rogers and Nunes, and thus it’s not all that surprising that Rogers could offer unflattering anecdotes about his successor. But Nunes is hardly the only Republican, or only intelligence-committee member, who had strong disagreements with Rogers over the years.

In November 2014, Rogers and ranking-member representative Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland — who’s been representing the district that includes NSA headquarters since 2003 —  offered a committee report that irked quite a few Republicans, concluding “there was no intelligence failure prior to the attack, no stand-down order to CIA operatives trying to go assist at the besieged consular building and found conflicting intelligence in the wake of the attack about the motive and cause, which were reflected in early public comments by the administration.” Clinton allies like Lanny Davis took the Rogers report and basically did a touchdown dance, declaring that the report proved “every one of the charges Republicans have been making for the last two years against the administration about Benghazi — every one — is untrue.”

As Stephen F. Hayes and Thomas Jocelyn reported:

At a meeting of intelligence committee Republicans in early 2013, just four months after the attacks, Rogers laid out his priorities for the new Congress. Not only was Benghazi not on that list, according to three sources in the meeting, he declared to the members that the issue was in the past and that they wouldn’t be devoting significant time and resources to investigating it. Whatever failures there had been in Benghazi, he explained, they had little to do with the intelligence community, and his intelligence committee would therefore have little to do with investigating them.

It’s not often you see members of a committee ripping their own panel’s report, but it happened: Representative Tom Rooney said, “I don’t think this is the official government report. It’s Mike Rogers’s report. The members of his own committee don’t even agree with it.” For whatever reason, Rogers became convinced quite quickly that there was little reason to blame the intelligence community for failing to be prepared for the Benghazi attack — and thus, the Obama administration as well.

I have no doubt that Nunes has a combative streak that has only gotten stronger as he stepped from obscurity to become Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of the Left. MSNBC commentators are speculating he’s a Russian spy, his opponent put up a billboard depicting him on Putin’s leash, and he was the subject of a much-hyped House Ethics Committee probe that turned up empty. (You know an ethics investigation added up to nothing when it only gets mentioned once in a critical New York Times profile.) Like many high-profile members of Congress, he’s living in a world with more yahoos making threats than ever before. Think about how Nunes sees the world right now. He tried to do the right thing, and everyone around him is paying the price. That would make any man warier and less willing to give others the benefit of the doubt.

The White House Correspondents’ Blather

Do we need to hash out the White House Correspondents’ Dinner controversy any more, or have we emerged from that news cycle?

Yes, the comedienne’s routine was obnoxious, crass, and far too personal in the eyes of many. It says quite a bit about her that she joked about the inappropriateness of her routine: “Should have done more research before you got me to do this.” In other words, she knew what was appropriate at that time and place, and she chose the other path. It’s fascinating to see various commentators insisting her comments were not too gross or nasty for the occasion, when she herself was effectively admitting that they were.

Our former colleague Tim Alberta: “Every caricature thrust upon the national press — that we are culturally elitist, professionally incestuous, socioeconomically detached and ideologically biased — is confirmed by this trainwreck of an event. Journalists, the joke’s on us.”

Michael Graham: “Inviting Michelle Wolf was the DC media revealing their views of the president. They didn’t offer critiques of policy or comic takes on presidential foibles. They held a ‘We Hate Trump!’ party and invited the rest of America to look upon their loathing of a guy 60 million of their fellow citizens voted for. That was the set up.”

She said obnoxious things. Yes, the president says and tweets obnoxious things. Citing one to justify the other in either direction is an ipso facto defense of obnoxiousness. I will accept one of two universal standards. One is a public discourse where no holds are barred, everything is fair game, and nothing is beyond the pale for everyone on both sides. The second is one where decorum, decency, and respect are required in public discourse, from everyone and to everyone on all sides. I’d actually prefer the latter, but can function in either world.

But whichever standard we pick, it must be universal; it can’t be the first standard for political allies and the second standard for political foes. None of this “Hitchens was in the family, you aren’t,” open double-standard nonsense from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. If you want our discourse to be Firing Line or the Oxford Union Debates, you have to hold everyone to that standard. If you’re comfortable with a four-way debate between Bill Maher, Alex Jones, Ted Nugent, and Kathy Griffin, I can live with that, too. But under those rules, no one gets punished for inappropriate speech; no one ever gets fired for an offensive comment on social media anymore.

Pick one, friends.

ADDENDA:  Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman and former White House chief of staff John Podesta lends his expertise to the History Channel’s shlocky Ancient Aliens program.

In Florida, Republican governor-turned-senatorial candidate Rick Scott raises in three weeks what incumbent Democratic senator Bill Nelson raised in three months.

The editors of National Review endorse state attorney general Patrick Morrissey their nod in Tuesday’s West Virginia Senate primary. I profiled Morrissey last year. Of the other two GOP candidates, one spent a year in jail on a charge related to a deadly mining accident and the other was a member of the Democratic party until 2013.

When are we allowed to discuss Avengers: Infinity War without spoiling it?

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