The Memo: Summit gives Trump political boost — with risks

President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE is likely to get a political boost from his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un, but experts tell The Hill the president also faces risks now that he “owns” any future challenges that arise from North Korea.

Insiders from both parties cautioned that any gains by Trump could be short lived, given that the politics of the Korean Peninsula are fraught. Pyongyang is considered by many to be an untrustworthy partner, and there is already unease about whether Trump has proven too willing to make concessions.


In the short term, strategists from both parties say the imagery and statecraft of the event — the first-ever such encounter between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader — benefit Trump.

“In the short term, it is likely to be a political win for the president,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant, who worked for a Trump rival, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump GOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia On The Money: Treasury official charged with leaking info on ex-Trump advisers | Trump to seek 5 percent budget cut from Cabinet members | Mnuchin to decide by Thursday on attending Saudi conference MORE (R-Fla.), in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. “The images were historic and showed Trump leading on the world stage.”

But Conant asserted that there were still a lot of questions left unanswered.

“Trump owns the North Korea problem now,” Conant said. “If peace breaks out on the peninsula, that will be to his benefit. But if Kim fails to denuclearize, Trump will have some explaining to do.”

The last two Republican presidents both found out how fleeting foreign policy victories can be.

Former President George W. Bush’s 2003 speech on an aircraft carrier in front of a huge banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” came to be seen as an albatross around his neck as the war in Iraq dragged on, bringing Bush’s approval numbers down with it.

Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, enjoyed sky-high poll numbers in the wake of the first Gulf War in 1991, only to lose his bid for reelection to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonThe Democratic Donald Trump is coming Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure Dershowitz: Obama, Ellison have 'special obligation' to condemn Farrakhan MORE the following year.

In Trump’s case, his polarizing political persona also calls into question how much any single development can affect his popularity ratings, which are strictly divided along party lines.

“We know Donald Trump can garner as much attention as he wants. He’s like a pro wrestler: If you think he’s a good guy, you’re going to cheer him, and if you think he’s a bad guy, you’re going to boo him — but you’re going to watch either way,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. 

But, Heye added, “the world of global diplomacy is more than that.”

For now, there is just too much uncertainty to predict how Trump’s approach to North Korea will be seen over the long term.

Numerous foreign policy experts have already expressed consternation at the differences between the president’s language toward Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Kim. In a tweet after a fractious meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations just before the Singapore summit, Trump called Trudeau “very dishonest & weak.” 

On Tuesday, he enthused that he “got along great with Kim Jong-un who wants to see wonderful things for his country.” North Korea is considered among the worst offenders in the world for human rights abuses.

Some Republicans who spoke to The Hill expressed worry that Trump could be so eager for a foreign policy victory that he ends up being overly credulous of North Korean claims. 

“We cannot allow North Korea to continue to play a game of Lucy and Charlie Brown with the football with the United States, where we agree to concessions like freezing our legitimate military exercises with our ally, South Korea, while North Korea agrees to freeze its illegitimate nuclear activities, only to back off that and other commitments when it has gotten what it wants from the United States,” said Jamil Jaffer, a veteran of the George W. Bush White House.

Some Republican lawmakers have expressed skepticism along similar lines. Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump Trump changes tone on Saudi Arabia amid mounting pressure Trump rebukes Saudis, but also gives them more time MORE (R-S.C.) is among those who have insisted that Congress must have the opportunity to review any deal that Trump would strike with Pyongyang.

Other conservative figures have gone further. Commentator Erick Erickson suggested that Republicans would have called for former President Obama’s impeachment had he taken the same approach as Trump.

Yet, at the same time, Trump’s outreach on North Korea has also crossed partisan lines in other ways, with lawmakers on the left, including Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersBooker holds 'Get Out the Vote' event in South Carolina as presidential speculation builds The Democratic Donald Trump is coming Biden: Trump administration 'coddles autocrats and dictators' MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeWorking together to improve diversity and inclusion The Hill's Morning Report — How will the Kavanaugh saga impact the midterms? Live coverage: Senate Judiciary to vote on Kavanaugh confirmation MORE (D-Calif.), offering a guarded welcome.

A Democratic strategist who spoke to The Hill on the condition of anonymity argued that some in his party were too eager to dismiss Trump. The president, this source argued, cannot be judged by any conventional yardstick.

“If people are being honest, no one really knows” how the North Korean moves play out politically, this strategist said. “Everyone keeps evaluating Trump by some traditional prism, and I’m not sure that applies to him.”

Right now, only one thing seems certain: Trump is invested in the outcome of this new process with Pyongyang, and that holds both high potential rewards and very serious risks.

At moments of danger or when there is the threat of war, Conant said, “Americans usually rally around the president, and we are likely to see some of that now.”

But, he added, “When their efforts falter, the ramifications can be catastrophic for a president — see Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.