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Trump’s Wall Street Journal interview is incoherent and bizarre

“I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un,” he says, and we all wonder what he means by “probably.”

President Trump Holds Roundtable On Prison Reform In Roosevelt Room Of White House Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The president of the United States gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal about his diplomatic efforts to contain the North Korea nuclear program, his proposal for a border wall with Mexico (and having Mexico pay for it), the process of renegotiating NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, and his relationship with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Among the things he said:

  • “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un. I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised.”
  • WSJ reporters asked if that meant he talks directly to Kim, which would be a major departure from US policy over the past decade. Trump replied: “I don’t want to comment on it. I’m not saying I have or haven’t. I just don’t want to comment.”
  • On the border wall, he explained, “[Mexico] can pay for it indirectly through NAFTA. We make a good deal on NAFTA, and, say, I’m going to take a small percentage of that money and it’s going toward the wall. Guess what? Mexico’s paying.”
  • “I don’t know what the word permanent means,” Trump said when asked if his relationship with Bannon was permanently ruptured because of Bannon’s cooperation with Michael Wolff’s book about the Trump administration, Fire and Fury.
  • “[Trump] claimed that firing former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey should have elicited grateful applause from across Washington.”
  • “Mr. Trump also said that messages traded between a pair of FBI employees who had been involved in the Mueller investigation amounted to treason.”
  • “Mr. Trump offered an unsolicited rebuttal to Fire and Fury, saying it showed the need for new libel laws. But he acknowledged that was unlikely to happen, saying that the Republican-controlled Congress doesn’t have the ‘guts’ for that debate.”
  • Trump “acknowledged that Pyongyang may be trying to separate Washington and Seoul. ‘If I were them, I would try,’ he said. ‘The difference is I’m president, other people aren’t,’ he said. ‘And I know more about wedges than any human being that’s lived.’”

We have learned either a lot or nothing through this interview. Or maybe, somehow, both a lot and nothing.

Perhaps the most surprising section of the interview was Trump’s reference to “probably” having a “very good relationship” with Kim Jong Un. The US has not officially engaged in direct talks with North Korea since the Six-Party Talks of the Bush administration. Those were held in Beijing and included the US, North and South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. North Korea pulled out of those negotiations in spring 2009.

It would be a major departure from the Trump administration’s past policy to engage in direct talks with North Korea’s leader. Even during past diplomatic endeavors, like the 1993-’94 nuclear talks that produced the now-defunct Agreed Framework deal under which North Korea pledged not to pursue weapons, negotiations were primarily handled by diplomatic staff. In that case, former President Jimmy Carter acted as an intermediary and Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gallucci was the head US negotiator. Direct talks between a US president and a North Korean supreme leader would be unprecedented.

It is unclear what the adverb “probably” meant in Trump’s statement. The reference to “know[ing] more about wedges than any human being that’s lived” appears to be a joke about golf, but honestly, who knows anymore.

Trump’s statements on NAFTA negotiations are similarly ambiguous. NAFTA is not an agreement about exchanging cash between the governments of the US, Canada, and Mexico. It’s an agreement setting rules for trade between the countries and limiting the trade barriers each country can enact. According to its supporters, it boosts GDP in all affected countries, and it’s conceivable that a better deal would have larger growth effects in the US, which the US could then tax to pay for the wall. But that wouldn’t involve Mexico “paying” for it in any sense. The US would be taxing its own economic growth.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump explained that he would make Mexico pay for the wall by seizing remittances sent from workers in the US to Mexico, and would raise visa fees for Mexican workers in the US. These are provisions that could conceivably make it into a version of NAFTA, but again, the Mexican government itself is not paying. Families of Mexican Americans would pay if remittances were seized, and Mexican workers residing in America would pay if visa fees were raised.

But in this latest interview, it is left ambiguous what Trump means when he says the US should “take a small percentage of that money.” It is unclear what “that money” is in the context of NAFTA or how he would go about taking it.

FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page are not guilty of treason. To be guilty of treason, you have to either help a foreign army attacking the US (like John Walker Lindh, who joined the Taliban) or raise your own army to attack the US (like the South in the Civil War). Strzok and Page did not either join the Taliban or raise their own army to destroy the government of the United States.

Finally, I have to believe that the president, despite his protestations to the contrary, knows what the word “permanent” means.

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