U.S. President Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore last month. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Whether you think President Trump is a success on the world stage or not, he’s not nearly the success he’s made himself out to be in recent weeks.
At several points, Trump has made claims about his foreign policy dealings that wound up being vastly overstated — if not completely baseless. That may not be a huge surprise from a serial fabulist with an increasing taste for diplomacy, but it is taking it to an entirely new and vast stage, and with the world watching.
The most recent example is Trump’s pronouncements about the success of his summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Shortly thereafter, Trump declared North Korea was “no longer a Nuclear Threat.”
Just landed – a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
Just Monday, Trump again hailed the summit as a success — even playing it up while leaning into a potential summit with another member of what George W. Bush called the “axis of evil,” Iran. “There’s nothing wrong with meeting,” Trump said. “We met, as you know, with Chairman Kim. And it — you haven’t had a missile fired off in nine months. We got our prisoners back. So many things have happened. So positive.”
Fast forward just a few hours, though, and The Washington Post was reporting U.S. spy agencies have discovered North Korea is building new missiles at the factory that produced the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). That news comes on top of reporting from shortly after the Trump-Kim summit that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded North Korea wasn’t serious about fully surrendering its nuclear stockpile. This surrender would be the necessary condition — and indeed, the whole point — of the ongoing diplomatic negotiations.
In another example, Trump went to Brussels a couple of weeks ago clearly looking to shake things up. By the end of a NATO summit in which he attacked Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, Trump proudly proclaimed he had convinced NATO member countries to sharply increase their funding of the alliance. “They’re going to up it at levels that they’ve never thought of before,” Trump said.
Except we still have no reason to believe that’s true. French President Emmanuel Macron said flatly that no new agreement had been forged, beyond the already-existent goal of each country spending 2 percent of its GDP on NATO by 2024. “The communique is clear,” Macron said. “It reaffirms a commitment to 2 percent in 2024. That is all.”
And then there was Trump’s second European diplomacy victory lap, last week. After a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Trump hailed a deal to avert a trade war. “This was a very big day for free and fair trade — a very big day indeed,” he said, also calling it a “breakthrough agreement.”
But even at the time, there were precious few details and no actual documentation. Trump said Europe would import more American soybeans and liquefied natural gas, but everything still seems to be in the negotiating stage — a stage that could take months or even as much as a year. Trump, meanwhile, went to Iowa and declared, “we just opened up Europe for you farmers.”
And then, much like Macron disputed Trump’s comments after Brussels, a European Commission spokeswoman disputed the idea that such a deal had been cut on agricultural products. The soybeans thing had already been under discussion, and she claimed that had nothing to do with the current negotiations. “On agriculture, I think we’ve been very clear on that — that agriculture is out of the scope of these discussions,” the spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, said Friday. She reinforced: “We are not negotiating about agricultural products.” Juncker has also said as much, acknowledging that agricultural trade is “a very sensitive issue in Europe.”
As I’ve written, Trump’s strategy here seems to be to rattle cages on the international level and frighten other countries into negotiating. Then, after closed-door meetings we aren’t privy to about complex topics that few truly understand, he emerges and makes plausible but deceptive claims about the major deals he has just struck. And a GOP base that is predisposed to distrust the media and the experts won’t care when reports like this one cast a spotlight on the overzealousness of those claims.
But overzealous they are — and in a lot of cases, highly premature. The North Korea news drives that home.