Trump suffers disappointing setback with North Korea

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls for Republicans to be 'united' on abortion Tlaib calls on Amash to join impeachment resolution Facebook temporarily suspended conservative commentator Candace Owens MORE suffered a significant blow on Thursday when his nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unexpectedly collapsed.

Trump traveled halfway around the world to Vietnam on a mission to broker a historic nuclear accord with Kim, with whom he has spent more than a year building a personal relationship in order to deliver on his No. 1 foreign policy goal of ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons.

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Instead, the self-styled negotiator in chief left the two-day summit with no deal after failing to persuade the North Korean strongman to commit to surrendering his arsenal.

It all happened in the middle of the night for most Americans, who awoke the morning after a day of riveting testimony on Capitol Hill by Trump's former personal attorney Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenStormy Daniels reaches settlement with Michael Cohen, ex-lawyer  Trump associate gave US government Osama bin Laden's phone number, judge says The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - After GOP infighting, Trump Jr. agrees to testify again MORE to learn about the collapse of the summit.

A success with Kim would have allowed Trump to change the narrative after a difficult day. Instead, he had to deal with Cohen fallout that was now coupled with disappointment in Vietnam.

A visibly subdued Trump sought to explain the result during a press conference in Hanoi, which was moved up two hours after a prescheduled working luncheon and joint signing ceremony were suddenly canceled.

“Sometimes you have to walk, and this was just one of those times,” Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One en route back to Washington.

Trump did earn a modicum of praise from regional experts who feared he might accept a bad deal in order to secure a much-needed political and diplomatic victory.

Trump said the North Koreans wanted the U.S. to lift all sanctions without making enough nuclear concessions. But North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho disputed that claim, saying during a rare news conference that his government asked only for partial sanctions relief in exchange for shuttering several nuclear facilities.

“I do think that no deal is better than bad deal,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst at the CIA and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Trump takes flak for not joining anti-extremism pact | Phone carriers largely end sharing of location data | Huawei pushes back on ban | Florida lawmakers demand to learn counties hacked by Russians | Feds bust 0M cybercrime group Huawei says inclusion on US trade blacklist is in 'no one's interest' Frustrated GOP senators want answers from Trump on Iran MORE (R-Fla.), a sometime critic of Trump’s foreign policy who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, tweeted, “Thankfully @POTUS didn’t fall for a deal involving meaningless #NorthKorea measures in exchange for meaningful U.S. concessions.”

Even frequent Trump critic Joe Scarborough praised him on that note.

But any credit Trump received was overshadowed by the president’s acceptance of Kim’s claim that he was not involved in the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old imprisoned in North Korea. Warmbier was sent back to his family in a comatose state and died after his return.

“He knew the case very well. But he knew it later,” Trump said of Kim. “And, you know, you’ve got a lot of people. Big country. Lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really bad things.”

Observers across the political spectrum on Thursday criticized Trump's remarks, accusing him of coddling a dictator.

“I mean he gave cover ... to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier,” former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), a Republican who is now a CNN commentator, said on Thursday. “I don’t understand why the president does this. I am disappointed to say the least that he did it.”

Beyond that controversy, most observers saw few positives in the summit's fruitless outcome.

“There’s no denying that this summit was a total failure in the sense that the expectations prior to this summit was that there should be tangible progress,” said Victor Cha, who led the Asia division on former President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “We didn’t just get a little bit of progress, we got zero progress.”

Foreign policy experts and congressional Democrats faulted Trump’s unconventional approach of trying to reach an agreement through direct talks with Kim, saying it resulted in a lack of preparation at the staff level that could have paved the way for some kind of agreement that advanced denuclearization efforts.  

Typically, most of the heavy lifting before major summits between U.S. presidents and foreign leaders is done by staff weeks or months in advance so the result is all but preordained.

Staff-level work also took place before the Hanoi summit but the scope was limited in part due to Trump’s desire for one-on-one negotiations with Kim.

Critics said Thursday’s outcome also revealed the limits of Trump’s personal approach to diplomacy, borrowed from his years of using personal charm and gut instinct during his years in the New York real estate business.  

“What we saw in Hanoi was amateur hour with nuclear weapons at stake and the limits of reality TV diplomacy,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Acting Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange MORE (D-N.J.) said on CNN.

Trump has continually showered praise on Kim, even proclaiming last September that “we fell in love,” and has spoken effusively about the economic benefits that Pyongyang could receive if they agree to a deal with Washington.

“You can imagine that they heard and read that the president’s in desperate trouble at home politically and that all the experts and editorial writers were worried he was going to give away too much,” said Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia at CSIS. “So I would guess Kim Jong Un came into this meeting with a complete misunderstanding of where things were going.”

The future of Trump’s North Korea efforts are now unclear.

The president has spoken openly about how his willingness to walk away is a negotiating tactic, even writing about it in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” and he left the door open to further negotiations with Kim.  

“This wasn’t a walk away, like you get up and walk out,” Trump said at his news conference. “No, this was very friendly. We shook hands. You know, there’s a warmth that we have, and I hope that stays. I think it will. But we are — you know, we’re positioned to do something very special.”

Trump called South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a major booster of North Korean diplomacy, following the summit and asked him “actively” help mediate future talks with Pyongyang, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later confirmed the call and said the administration “continue the conversations” with Kim and coordinate closely with allies.

But a North Korean official reportedly said later that “Chairman Kim got the feeling that he didn't understand the way Americans calculate” and added that Kim may have “lost the will” for more negotiations.

Updated at 1:36 p.m.