Trump: “Time and Place to Be Determined”

Developments on Day 415 of the Trump Administration:

See also Podcast: Connecting the Dots — From Trump’s Turmoil to A Nerve Agent Attack on a Russian Spy in England
Podcast: Trump’s “Government by Chaos” — Tariffs, North Korea, and That Russia Investigation
Q&A: Why Kim and Donald Might Have a Chat

Uncertainty After Trump Suddenly Changes Approach

Some Administration staff are stepping back from Donald Trump’s impromptu declaration that he will meet North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un, with the assessment that the chance of an encounter is less than 50%.

A “senior official” said top advisors, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, have expressed concerns although they are not opposing the initiative.

On Thursday, Trump surprised his own people by calling in a South Korean envoy, who was briefing US officials about a Monday meeting with Kim over the progress of talks between the two Koreas and possible direct discussions between Pyongyang and Washington.

Told that Kim had expressed a desire to meet him, Trump immediately asked the envoy to announce his acceptance. White House sources said that they had expected to spend several days discussing the approach from North Korea, and that the US has not established a negotiating position beyond its general call for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program permanently.

See Podcasts: How US is Stumbling Into a Trump-Kim Meeting
Korean Surprise — How a Trump Meeting with Kim Jong-Un Was Confirmed

Several officials said Friday that the US needs to establish direct contact with North Korea to verify Kim’s message, warning that the leader could change his mind or step back from a commitment to denuclearization.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also appeared to put up a barrier: “The United States has made zero concessions, but North Korea has made some promises. This meeting won’t take place without concrete actions that match the promises that have been made by North Korea.”

The White House later said that Sanders was not setting preconditions, but speaking of consequences if North Korea conducted nuclear tests or interfered with joint US-South Korean military exercises in late March.

Meanwhile, Trump continued his proclamations on Twitter:

White House officials have been scrambling even to establish a possible location for the meeting, reportedly considering the suggestion of Kim coming to Washington. A “senior State Department diplomat” said Friday that the obvious venue would be the Peace House, a conference building in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

“They Knew How to Play Him”

A “diplomatic source” explained Trump’s change of approach, a distant step from his promotion of military confrontation last year. He noted the past three weeks of maneuvers between the two Koreas, marked by a unified Korean team in the Winter Olympics in South Korea:

South Korea put this all together with a lot of help from North Korea. South Korea knew that despite the noise coming from Washington, from McMaster and company about military action and the bloody nose, that if they dangled this meeting in front of Trump, he could not turn it down. They knew how to play him.

The shift quietly pleased some State Department personnel who cautioned that White House aides — who have been emphasizing sanctions and military options rather than diplomacy — might try to block the meeting.

White House personnel had repeatedly slapped down Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for speaking about direct talks with North Korea, even floating the idea last autumn that Tillerson would leave the Administration by the end of 2017. Trump joined in the criticism:

Tillerson, on a tour of five African nations, was not informed in advance of Trump’s impromptu decision. The State Department’s chief negotiator for North Korea, Joseph Yun, resigned last week, and the Trump Administration has never nominated an Ambassdor to South Korea.

On Friday, Tillerson — who had said earlier there was no chance of direct US-North Korea talks in the near-future — insisted there was no shift: “This is something that [Trump] has had on his mind for quite some time, so it was not a surprise in any way.”

Ex-Trump Staffer Nunberg Testifies Before Grand Jury in Russia Investigation

Former Trump aide Sam Nunberg, who said in a series of television appearances that he would not answer a subpoena by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, leaves a federal courthouse after testifying on Friday before the grand jury empanelled in Washington.

In the course of his erratic interviews on Monday, Nunberg said Donald Trump knew in advance of meetings between his top advisors and Russian officials.

See TrumpWatch, Day 410: Ex-Trump Advisor — “Idiot” Trump Caused Russia Investigation