The Memo: Summit gives Trump political boost — with risks

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos 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 RubioMnuchin, Schumer in talks to strike short-term relief deal Senators push for changes to small business aid Phase-four virus relief hits a wall 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 ClintonMonica Lewinsky says 'no matter the past' she hopes Linda Tripp recovers COVID is a very different kind of crisis politically History's lessons for Donald Trump 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 GrahamTrump attacks WHO amid criticism of his coronavirus response Graham backs Trump, vows no money for WHO in next funding bill UN biodiversity chief calls for international ban of 'wet markets' 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 SandersBernie SandersTrump says Obama knows 'something that you don't know' about Biden The Hill's Campaign Report: Sanders exits, clearing Biden's path to nomination Former Clinton staffers invited to celebrate Sanders dropping out: report MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeCBS All Access launches animated 'Tooning Out the News' series Bill banning menthol in cigarettes divides Democrats, with some seeing racial bias Democrats spar with DeVos at hearing, say Trump budget would 'privatize education' 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.