Political Watchword From Trump-Kim Meeting: Caution
As President Trump touts the historic nature of his meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, calling it the start of a "terrific relationship," lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are sounding more cautious notes.
While Republicans were more congratulatory Tuesday of the president's moment and Democrats were more cynical, two common threads in reactions to the Singapore summit were the caveat that Kim’s regime has broken promises before and concern about North Korea following through this time around. Lawmakers urged the administration to continue a "maximum pressure campaign" against North Korea, a term the president shunned in the days before the meeting. And many argued that there must be congressional buy-in on any official deal that emerges.
"We must always be clear that we are dealing with a brutal regime with a long history of deceit," said House Speaker Paul Ryan. "Only time will tell if North Korea is serious this time, and in the meantime we must continue to apply maximum economic pressure."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell congratulated Trump on "this major step," but also echoed Ryan's sentiment, adding that "the next steps in negotiation will test whether we can get to a verifiable deal which enhances the security of North East Asia, our allies and of course, the United States."
The two countries signed a joint agreement in Singapore in which Kim committed to “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula. Trump later announced that the United States would suspend annual joint military exercises with South Korea, which he called "war games." The suspension was seen as a significant concession on the part of the United States, and drew questions from allies in the region.
Democrats acknowledged that they preferred diplomacy to the president's "Little Rocket Man" taunts and threats of war, but pointed to the contrast between Trump's recent disparagement of traditional allies and his apparent warmth for the likes of Kim and Vladimir Putin.
"This was a dream outcome for Kim Jong Un, something his father and grandfather long hoped for -- legitimacy on the world stage," Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told MSNBC. “I think President Trump would have been stronger going into this summit had he left the G-7 in Canada with a united declaration of support for sanctions and for our negotiating stature. Instead he left with the G-7 in disarray.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders called the meeting "a positive step in de-escalating tensions between our countries, addressing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and moving toward a more peaceful future." But, he added, "Congress has an important role to play in making sure this is a meaningful and serious process and not just a series of photo ops."
Trump's presidency has scrambled traditional political alliances on a variety of fronts, and the reaction to the North Korea meeting provides another example. Republicans who denigrated the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran -- alongside a group of allied countries -- to curb that nation’s nuclear ambitions, generally viewed Trump's meeting with Kim positively. Democrats who supported the Iran agreement, from which Trump withdrew, have been critical of the current president's approach to North Korea.
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, a close ally of the president, defended the difference in terms of threat levels. "Countries like Iran and Cuba and other two-bit rogue regimes don’t have nuclear weapons yet. They can’t threaten the United States in that way," he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. "Once North Korea had nuclear weapons, once they have missiles that can deliver them to us, I would liken it to past presidents sitting down with Soviet dictators. It’s not something that we should celebrate. It’s not a pretty sight. But it’s a necessary part of the job to try to protect Americans from a terrible threat."
The meeting itself generally garnered public support. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that 72 percent of voters approved of the planned summit. But 68 percent said they don't believe North Korea will ever give up its nuclear arsenal. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal survey found that confidence in the outcome of the negotiations broke along party lines. Among Republican voters, roughly 60 percent said Trump would secure a deal that would either be fair or advantageous to the United States, while 51 percent of Democrats said the president would be unsuccessful in reaching an agreement or would give up too much to secure a deal.
But now that the summit is over, some Republicans on Capitol Hill are wondering aloud whether Trump actually achieved anything in Singapore. “While I am glad the president and Kim Jong Un were able to meet, it is difficult to determine what of a concrete nature has occurred," said Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who had worked to help secure the release of his constituent, fatally ill Otto Warmbier, cautioned that the regime has used stall tactics in the past. "North Korea has used talks to stall while continuing its nuclear and missile programs, and empty promises cannot buy any more time," he said. "I remain skeptical but hopeful that this new dialogue can translate into meaningful progress."
And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio offered a correction of sorts to the president's positive descriptions of Kim. "While I know @potus is trying to butter him up to get a good deal, #KJU is NOT a talented guy," Rubio tweeted. "He inherited the family business from his dad & grandfather. He is a total weirdo who would not be elected assistant dog catcher in any democracy."
Others stressed the need for Congress to formally weigh in on any agreement. “Not only do I want to see the details, I want to vote on them," Sen. Lindsey Graham told MSNBC. "Here’s what I would tell President Trump: I stand with you, but anything you negotiate with North Korea will have to come to the Congress for our approval. … Details matter."
Meanwhile, some Republican candidates running for Congress embraced the meeting. “President Trump has accomplished what Barack Obama never could, and as a result we are beginning a path towards a safer Pacific region and a safer United States," said Indiana Senate hopeful Mike Braun.
And in West Virginia, where Democrats are defending a U.S. Senate seat in November, Republican Gov. Jim Justice heaped praise on Trump. "When will the world realize what a phenomenal job you have done for America and the entire world? Slam Dunk Nobel Peace Prize," he tweeted.
Though it is too early to assess what kind of impact the summit could have on the midterm elections, and whether it will influence voters' overall feelings of security, for now "the reality is: Where we are now in the conversation is far better than where we were six months ago," says Lanhee Chen, a research fellow at The Hoover Institution and a policy adviser to Republican presidential campaigns. "It may be one of those situations where Republicans end up benefiting, but it's a very tricky dynamic because of the history."