On Thursday, a landmark deal was announced from the White House. President Donald Trump had agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and that country would continue freezing nuclear and missile tests. For at least the third time in the past 24 years, North Korean leadership also would agree to seek to denuclearize the peninsula, the holy grail of diplomacy in the region.
Trump was reportedly so excited about the agreement that he popped his head into the White House briefing room to tease it. When ABC News’ Jon Karl asked the president if the announcement would be about negotiations, Trump responded excitedly, “It’s almost beyond that. Hopefully, you will give me credit.”
The media did give Trump the credit he desired. The news dominated the cable networks for a short while. The New York Post on Friday morning led with the headline “The Kim and I: Jong-un, Trump to Summit Over Nukes.” The New York Times led with the headline “North Korea Asks for Direct Talks, and Trump Agrees” and the subhead “Meeting With Kim on Nuclear Program Could Happen Within 2 Months.” That piece of news was based on a direct quote from South Korea’s National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong, who in his announcement said that “President Trump … said he would meet Kim Jong-un by May to achieve permanent denuclearization.” The Washington Post, for its part, offered a slightly more skeptical subheadline to its lead story: “President’s bellicosity secures a diplomatic coup—for now.”
By Friday afternoon, the press quietly learned that “for now” should be considered a major caveat for this White House. Press secretary Sarah Sanders repeatedly told reporters that the meeting would not take place without “concrete actions” from North Korea. When pressed on what that would look like, Sanders said they would have to denuclearize.
Sanders: The understanding, the message from the South Korean delegation is that they would denuclearize. And that is what our ultimate goal has always been, and that will have to be part of the actions that we see them take.
Reporter: Is that before or after the meeting?
Sanders: We’d have to see concrete and verifiable actions take place.
Reporter: Before the meeting?
Sanders: Yes. Yeah.
So the meeting—agreed to by Trump to take place by May—won’t take place until North Korea shows verifiable and concrete proof that it is doing the thing that it has promised to do on repeated occasions and never done.
Sanders was pressed further on what those concrete steps might look like. “That’s something that is going to be determined by the intelligence community, the national security team, and not something that I would relay from the podium to all of you,” she said. Of course, there is a system in place in Iran for determining that a rogue regime is not building a nuclear arsenal—a system the current president has repeatedly rebuked and threatened to undo—so it’s entirely possible to publicly outline such concrete steps.
Ultimately, this is just the latest episode in our current administration’s general policy of government by gimmickry, a practice that Slate’s editor in chief Julia Turner predicted would become the norm just before Trump took office, when the then-president elect announced that he was “saving” a Carrier plant:
The resulting press opportunity is the policy. The approach collapses any distinction between the work of leadership and the promotion of that work. It bypasses the abstractions of administration and substitutes visceral image-making instead. What Trump has laid out here is a troubling blueprint for government by stunt. ….
The approach is opportunistic rather than strategic, concerned with short-term victories rather than the unglamorous work of building something enduring and strong, anticipating and minimizing unintended consequences, understanding historical imperatives, and assessing the potential levers that can effect systemic change.
Of course many of those Carrier jobs were lost within 13 months. And it took less than 24 hours for the White House to walk back its groundbreaking North Korea announcement. The walk-back is the flipside of the government by stunt: There’s no immediate downside to running a country as a hollow PR apparatus. Whether or not the meeting ever happens—and more importantly, whether or not North Korea gives up its nukes—Trump got his headlines and won his news cycle. The press coverage of a meeting not occurring—should it fail to take place—won’t be nearly as noisy.
His supporters will remember his Nobel Prize–worthy victory. The media will ultimately forget about the episode like we’ve forgotten about the first time he gave up on Obamacare repeal, his subsequent Obamcare repeal victory party, his $1 trillion infrastructure plan, his agreement in September with Democrats to pass a DACA fix, his promises less than two weeks ago on gun control, and any countless number of other pretend policies that were actually PR stunts.
In the case of North Korean nuclear diplomacy, Trump could be long gone from the scene before this particular policy stunt ultimately results in failure. The stakes of Thursday’s announcement, from Trump’s perspective, were ultimately very low. Unfortunately, for the rest of us they couldn’t be higher.