The (Lack of) Preparation for the North Korea Summit

"Winging it" isn't how foreign policy should be made.

Via Politico: Trump and Bolton spurn top-level North Korea planning 

National Security Adviser John Bolton has yet to convene a Cabinet-level meeting to discuss President Donald Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korea next week, a striking break from past practice that suggests the Trump White House is largely improvising its approach to the unprecedented nuclear talks.

For decades, top presidential advisers have used a methodical process to hash out national security issues before offering the president a menu of options for key decisions. On an issue like North Korea, that would mean White House Situation Room gatherings of the secretaries of state and defense along with top intelligence officials, the United Nations ambassador, and even the treasury secretary, who oversees economic sanctions.

But since Trump agreed on a whim to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un on March 8, the White House’s summit planning has been unstructured, according to a half-dozen administration officials. Trump himself has driven the preparation almost exclusively on his own, consulting little with his national security team outside of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.


[O]fficials say that the policymaking process across the White House, never a tightly organized affair, has recently grown less disciplined. They point to John Kelly’s loosening grip on the West Wing, which Trump has always chafed at, and with it, the dissolution of many of the processes he tried to institute when he arrived a year ago. This has affected not just North Korea but the president’s recent imposition of tariffs on American allies. Many also cite Trump’s frustration with Bolton, who has irritated the president after just two months on the job.

Without that coordinated process, the president “cannot understand the equities that different elements of the government have in this,” said a former senior Bush administration official who served both in the White House and at the State Department. The White House declined to comment for this article.

If one’s favorite sports team were given over to the control of some celebrity with limited knowledge of the sport in question (apart, of course, from watching “the shows”) and started to run that team in a manner like that described above, we would all understand what a disaster that would be. And yet, a lot of Americans seem to support the approach in an arena with far higher stakes.  This is not how one should make basic policy decisions, let alone how one should address complex foreign policy issues such as we face with North Korea.

Many Asia experts worry that Trump is, as one former Bush official who worked on Asia policy recently put it to POLITICO, “is going to wing this summit.” The concern is shared by Japanese government officials who consider North Korea a threat to their security and worry Trump might cut a superficial deal that does too little to disarm Kim.

Well, that’s comforting. (And yes, if there is a deal, it will be superficial at best).

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Kathy says:

    Hey, if the Grand Cheeto wants so badly to return to Washington with egg on his face, and claim it as the greatest diplomatic coup of all time, let him.

  2. CSK says:

    Trump has said, more than once, that he relies on his gut for decision-making, which isn’t surprising since he’s a creature of appetite with no impulse control. And it isn’t simply that he doesn’t feel he needs to prepare for summit. You have to remember that he can’t, intellectually and temperamentally, prepare for one.

    So, yes, he’ll wing this, because it’s all he’s capable of doing.

  3. Arnold Stang says:

    Something tells me he’s coming home from Singapore with a handfull of magic beans.

  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The sad truth is that it does not matter what he gets out of NoKo.
    Mark my word; Dennison will make the shittiest foreign policy agreement in history, come home crowing about it, and the ignorant majority of America will proclaim him King Comb-Over.
    These are the times in which we live.

  5. Kathy says:

    @Arnold Stang:

    He might come back as the Dear Great Leader of the People’s Republic of North America, by the grace of the Supreme Leader Kim.

  6. Charon says:

    Trump’s standard negotiating style is I win, you lose. He will try to bully Kim into concessions while Kim gets little or nothing in return. Kim can not possibly give in to that which would be losing face, politically infeasible in east Asian cultures (losing face could endanger Kim’s job). Once it’s obvious to Trump he can’t get his wish list, he will bail on the summit to save face (he will want to be the one who breaks off the negotiations).

    You can look at the negotiations over the proposed DACA fixes to see how things typically play out with Trump. (Anything the other guy will agree to is by definition a bad deal, the other guy is not permitted to “win”). You can look to the Philadelphia Eagles withdrawn invitation for another example of Trump behavior.

    Trump has already staked out a pretty maximalist negotiating stance that is an obvious total non-starter. It’s hard to imagine how he climbs down from that.

    You might wander over to the American Conservative to see what Larison’s blog has to say, Larison is pretty good on this sort of stuff.

  7. Not the IT Dept. says:

    As I said yesterday, I’m being invited to edit/request deletion on other people’s comments, and today it’s Charon’s. Does anyone else get this?

  8. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Okay, I figured it out. I opened various threads on different tabs, and because I was the last commenter on one post, I get to edit/request deletion on last comments on other posts.

    James might want to look into this with his tech guy.

  9. mattbernius says:

    I wrote this about a week ago, and still stand by it:

    This thing about summits in the past is that their outcome was settled weeks in advance.

    So either (a) the Trump administration has secured a deal that they think they can sell to the country as being close enough to a denuclearized North Korea that it’s worth moving forward, (b) they think they can land that deal in the next 11 days, or (c) they think they can land that deal in person.

    The problem with this administration is no one has any idea which one it would be (because of the norm violation).

    All that said, I can’t help but start to second guess everything (the entire norm breaking). I honestly wonder if they have already secured a deal and all of this is misdirection. The only reason I say this is that so far, none of this unpreparedness has ever come to bite this administration in the immediate ass. And I am at the point where I do think they could be engaging in intentional misdirection.

    All past logic goes against this. But there is no way for us to know until it happens.

    Obviously if Trump reaches a good deal, that’s a good thing. I just can’t reconicle how that is going to happen based on analysis of all publicly available information.

    But then again, I never thought Trump would get elected so what the heck do I know.

  10. CSK says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    The same thing happened to me about an hour ago, and I had only opened one thread.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    They haven’t done the prep necessary for a real summit or a significant agreement. But they’ve had plenty of time to plan a photo op, which I pray is all this amounts to.

    I expect Kim, with Moon’s connivance, has read Trump like a book and prepared some bright, shiny non-substantive concession. Maybe they’ve run out of the rocket motors they bought from Ukraine and will agree to a rocket test moratorium. At least until they can get their copies of the Ukrainian motors to work. I just hope Trump doesn’t give away the store in return.

  12. Pylon says:

    @gVOR08: Based on past actions, they will scrap something that was due to be scrapped anyway. In return they will get recognition by the US, perhaps relaxation of embargos, maybe even money. Maybe Trump will agree to sell them nicer nukes.

  13. CSK says:

    Here’s what Trump had to say about Singapore earlier today:

    “I think I’m very well prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done.”

    This ought to turn out really well.

  14. TM01 says:

    Oh for crying out loud….just get a deal done. Lift sanctions, give NK access to US banks, and send him a pallet full of cash.

    In return NK agrees to temporarily stop nuclear testing. (Continuing missile development is ok).

    That will strengthen their economy and bring them into the Community of Nations, weakening the hard liners in NK, and bringing about Peace In Our Time.

    Because that’s The Norm by which we set our standards now.

  15. mattbernius says:

    Honestly, not withstanding the “pallet full of cash” which you know is bullshit, that would be a fine deal — provided it included thorough testing.

    That is also what the Administration has categorically said it would not agree to. And if they did, then it would of course raise questions about why the administration just scuttled that deal somewhere else.

    But of course its not like you actually are interested in this as a conversation.

  16. Charon says:

    @gVOR08: @gVOR08:

    But they’ve had plenty of time to plan a photo op, which I pray is all this amounts to.

    Trump cares about favorable publicity and adulation, not much else other than grifting opportunities. Reaching a deal would be a means to that end, so it would have to be one that Trump would expect to impress people, or at least his base.

  17. @mattbernius: He thinks he is all tricksy with his references to “animals”
    and MS13 or to the Iranian deal (especially the cash part). Sadly, he only seems interested in repeating conservative infotainment complex talking points.

    To add to your point, however, if we could get an equivalent deal with NK as we had with Iran, I would consider that a win. But, since the JCPOA was one of the worst deals evah, Trump won’t be getting one of those, right?

  18. Kathy says:

    I think Trump’s “preparation” for the summit is coming up with a new derogatory name for Kim.

    Further, his negotiating tactic will be the Classic Cooper: “You let me have all I want, and I’ll let you find a way to be ok with it.”

  19. michael reynolds says:


    Oh for crying out loud….just get a deal done. Lift sanctions, give NK access to US banks, and send him a pallet full of cash.

    Oh for crying out loud, you’ve been corrected on this before, so now you’re not just mistaken, you’re deliberately lying. The famous pallet of cash was Iranian cash. Cash we had zeized and as a consequence of negotiation, had agreed to return.

    North Korea has no cash to return.

    On the other hand, your idiot president has promised to make Kim and his entire country rich. Not return their seized money, but rich. So it’s Trump offering cash, and it’s not Kim’s cash, now is it?

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    @Charon: Trump wanted $1 million per episode of The Apprentice in the second season. He settled for $58,000. Pretty good chance he’ll give Kim everything he wants, then fall back on what he calls “truthful hyperbole.”

  21. teve tory says:

    “I think I’m very well prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude. It’s about willingness to get things done.”

    My 1-on-1 HORSE game with Steph Curry is going to go well too. I haven’t shot any threes, or tried any free throws or layups, but I’ve got a good attitude.

  22. teve tory says:

    @michael reynolds:

    On the other hand, your idiot president has promised to make Kim and his entire country rich. Not return their seized money, but rich. So it’s Trump offering cash, and it’s not Kim’s cash, now is it?

    In the world of TardMonkey#1, Obama giving Iran its own cash back is terrible, but Trump giving North Korea a bunch of cash taken from me, you, TardMonkey01, and our friends and neighbors is a great thing.

    This is why we’ll never understand the Trumpers. We have basic educations and reasoning powers.

  23. Daniel Hill says:


    losing face could endanger Kim’s job

    Nope, losing face could endanger Kim’s life, and the lives of everyone he loves. But still, he’s just going to roll over and let Donald tickle his belly. Really.

  24. teve tory says:

    comment i saw on the interwebs:

    “I think I’m very well prepared. I don’t think I have to prepare very much,” Trump told reporters.

    From Wikipedia: “In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the metacognitive inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.”
    Can we rename the Dunning-Kruger effect the Donald Trump effect?

  25. Charon says:

    @teve tory:

    I saw a recent survey that 60% of the public regards Trump as intelligent. That’s a phenomenon that needs a name. Dunning-Kruger by proxy perhaps?

  26. @teve tory: He is, most assuredly, the Dunning-Kruger President.