In an interview with the Washington Post last November, President Donald Trump explained why he thinks he knows more than some experts: “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”
His “gut” clearly guided him during his effort to compel North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to dismantle his nuclear program — and we just saw how it backfired.
Trump’s initiative hit a major roadblock early Wednesday morning when his Vietnam summit with Kim ended abruptly because they couldn’t reach a deal. In a press conference after two days of meetings, Trump said North Korea had asked for exorbitant sanctions relief in exchange for shutting down a vital nuclear facility.
Dealing with North Korea is hard — many administrations have tried and not gotten far. It’s therefore not right to say Trump “failed” in his efforts, because the task is so gargantuan, and it’s also possible that he and Kim could make a pact later on.
But the president is at fault for one important thing: trusting his gut over the advice of experts and seasoned professionals about how to conduct high-stakes diplomacy.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
Trump upended decades of US diplomatic protocol toward Pyongyang when he agreed to sit down face to face with the North Korean leader last June to kick off nuclear negotiations.
Instead of reserving such a high-profile meeting for until after a final deal had been reached, as is the usual custom, the president decided to make personal engagements with Kim the centerpiece of his strategy.
That plan just blew up in his face. Instead of leaving Hanoi with a brand new deal — helping his case that his way works better than the orthodox method — Trump flew back to Washington with nothing.
It didn’t have to be this way. The president could have gone the tried-and-true diplomatic route of letting working-level staff, like America’s special envoy for North Korea negotiations Stephen Biegun, figure out the finer details of a deal. After months or even years of painstaking work, those staffers could produce a near-ready agreement for Trump and Kim to finalize together.
Going that route ensures any failures remain at the aide level and out of the public eye. But if there’s success, then the leader gets to look good and doesn’t spend a lot of time at a summit for no payoff. Trump, however, went his own way and was left alone at a podium to answer questions about why he flew thousands of miles to end up without a deal.
In an interview with CNN early Wednesday morning, Joseph Yun, formerly America’s top North Korea negotiator, questioned the Trump administration’s diplomatic approach.
“There had not been many working-level meetings. In fact, only one,” he said. “So that begs the question: Have we done our homework? Did we know what they expected?” He then added: “Right now, it doesn’t look good.”
There’s no question Trump has already made progress with North Korea and could possibly achieve more down the line. But no one — least of all Trump, I’d guess — wants a repeat of what just happened in Hanoi. At the next opportunity, perhaps he’ll listen to his gut less and his staff more.