Experts blame lack of preparation, not Cohen hearing, for breakdown of Trump-Kim summit


    President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un take a walk after their first meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019, in Hanoi. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

    President Donald Trump claimed Sunday congressional Democrats calling his former personal attorney to testify at a public hearing last week may have contributed to the breakdown in his negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, but experts say deeper challenges and disagreements stand in the way of convincing leader Kim Jong Un to denuclearize.

    “For the Democrats to interview in open hearings a convicted liar & fraudster, at the same time as the very important Nuclear Summit with North Korea, is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the ‘walk.’ Never done when a president is overseas. Shame!” Trump tweeted.

    Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime attorney and fixer, met with several congressional committees last week before beginning a three-year prison sentence in May for federal crimes. Only Wednesday’s six-hour grilling by the House Oversight and Reform Committee was publicly televised, but the drama on Capitol Hill distracted cable news from the pomp and theatrics surrounding Trump’s second meeting with Kim Thursday in Hanoi.

    A signing ceremony had been scheduled, but the two leaders left Vietnam without a new agreement or any discernible steps toward shutting down North Korea’s nuclear program. Kim reportedly sought the lifting of several rounds of international sanctions in exchange for dismantling one major nuclear complex, but the U.S. wanted more concessions for that degree of economic relief.

    Experts on diplomacy and foreign affairs said the circus surrounding Cohen cannot have helped Trump’s standing going into the meeting, but the lack of common ground with Kim on what denuclearization would entail and what both sides were willing to give up to get it would likely have led to a stalemate anyway.

    “I don’t think it was a factor,” said Ian Hurd, a professor of political science at Northwestern University and author of “How to Do Things with International Law.” “The failure to have an agreement with North Korea is entirely independent from the Michael Cohen hearing.”

    It is unusual for a major scandal to play out at home like this while a president is representing the country overseas, but Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky, noted this White House has been engulfed in an unusually high number of major scandals from the start.

    “It’s sad but maybe true, for President Trump, it would be hard to have summits without that backdrop,” he said. “The general thought is American presidents have to be capable of both walking and chewing gum at the same time.”

    Whether it derailed the summit or not, Clifford May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued it was still inappropriate to schedule the hearing when it was known Trump would be engaged in nuclear diplomacy abroad.

    “I think it was wrong of House Democrats to hold the Cohen hearings while the president was attempting to negotiate with a threatening tyrant overseas,” May said. “We used to say, ‘Politics stops at the water’s edge.’ I’m afraid that’s become a quaint notion.”

    Although Trump claimed Cohen’s testimony may have tanked the Hanoi summit, some in the U.S. had feared the opposite, that the president would be eager to take a bad deal to change the subject from his disgraced former attorney’s accusations.

    “I think what... people should be a little concerned about is if the president feels the need to come up with something spectacular out of this meeting, something that he can tout as a historical agreement in order to overshadow what we are going here on Capitol Hill today," former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod said on CNN Wednesday.

    According to May, the lack of an agreement may prove to be a positive sign if it means Trump communicated to Kim that the U.S. will not accept a weak deal.

    “President Trump attempted to get Kim to take serious steps toward denuclearization based on carrots – his offer to help make the hermit kingdom as glitteringly prosperous as Singapore -- and the personal relationship the two have developed. The effort was not successful. The president was right to walk away,” he said.

    One of the president’s former confidantes tying him to numerous potential federal crimes under oath could certainly be seen as a distraction from his preparation for a high-stakes diplomatic meeting. However, experts say Trump’s lack of preparation has been an obstacle throughout the crisis and would have been again regardless of what Democrats were doing back home.

    “The failure to sign an agreement is a failure of preparation on the part of the U.S.,” Hurd said. “The seeds of the failure were planted long before the Michael Cohen hearing started.”

    Typically, summits like this between world leaders are intended to ratify agreements worked out beforehand, not to produce new ones, and there are very few surprises.

    “They require inordinate preparation, and before you go, 99 percent of what’s going to happen there is already predetermined,” Cavanaugh said.

    In remarks to reporters after the Hanoi meeting Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back on the perception that the necessary groundwork was not done before the summit.

    “We cleared away a lot of brush over the past, apparently, 60, 90 days at the working level, then we were hoping we could take another big swing when the two leaders got together. I think we did. We made some progress, but we didn’t get as far as we would have hoped to have gotten,” he said.

    Pompeo told reporters no date for a follow-up summit between the leaders had been set but lower-level talks will likely resume soon.

    “My sense is it’ll take a little while,” he said. “We’ll each need to regroup a little bit. But we’re hopeful that Special Representative Biegun and that team will get together before too long. But we’ll see. Look, there has to be a reason for the conversations. There has to be a theory of the case about how to move forward. I’m confident that there is one. I’ve seen enough congruence between what the two sides are trying to accomplish.”

    Others are less confident. Hurd expects both sides to go through the motions of negotiating publicly in the months ahead with little actual progress, as Kim’s regime has learned to live with sanctions and the U.S. and its allies have no desire to elevate this conflict to a military confrontation.

    “I don’t think there’s much serious interest in North Korea in eliminating its nuclear program, and I don’t see much serious leverage from the U.S. to coerce it into doing that, so I expect the status quo to continue,” he said.

    In the meantime, Cavanaugh said Kim’s stature on the world stage is growing. Once an isolated hermit dictator who rarely left his country, he is now being welcomed by foreign leaders and praised publicly by the president of the United States for perfunctory steps toward scaling back an illegal nuclear weapons program and goodwill gestures like returning remains of U.S. soldiers lost in the Korean War.

    “It’s clear... Kim has emerged the winner out of both of these engagements He’s just looked at differently,” Cavanaugh said.

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