Jun 11, 2018

Trump's history book summit

President Trump arriving in Singapore yesterday. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

As the curtain goes up on what may be the summit of our lifetime (9 tonight ET, 9 a.m. Tuesday local), a dispatch from Singapore for Axios readers by Frank Lavin, former ambassador to Singapore under George W. Bush, former National Security Council summit organizer, and now an e-commerce CEO based there.

The big picture: "When there's confusion or turmoil," Frank writes, "it's to Trump's advantage because his self-confidence is imperturbable."

Here are some more X-factors, via Frank:

  • "Level of ambition: Trump typically likes the grand gesture, but the moment calls for calibrated steps."
  • "Focus: Trump is the ultimate loner, but the negotiations call for him to pay attention to details and forge a consensus."
  • "Relationships: Trump wants the U.S. to drive policy, but an agreement that does not have buy-in from South Korea and Japan will be undercut from the start. Even China should be courted."
  • "Curveball: Don't be surprised if there's a public gesture such as a two-person walk (a neat trick with no interpreters). Don't surprised if there's a joint meal and public toasts. Don't even be surprised if Dennis Rodman gets in the photo."

Just give me the ball ... Your summit cheat sheet, reminding you of Axios' months of exclusive reporting on how Trump thinks about Kim Jong-un. These insights cascade from the hyper-connected Jonathan Swan. (If you don’t get his Sunday Sneak Peek, you're missing a treat. Sign up here):

  • Trump views the North Korean crisis as his “great man” of history moment. He came into office thinking he could be the historic deal maker to bring peace to the Middle East. Now Trump wants to sign his name even larger into the history books, and he views North Korea as his moment.
  • This is the single key to understanding this summit ... A source who has discussed North Korea with Trump: "He thinks, 'Just get me in the room with the guy and I’ll figure it out.'"
  • Trump “definitely thinks it’s a duel of personalities,” says another source familiar with his thinking about North Korea.
  • Trump mostly projects strength behind the scenes. But there’s also been at least one quiet moment when a source saw Trump reflect on how he doesn’t know what Kim is capable of.
  • A little wild unpredictability goes a long way, Jim VandeHei writes: "Even Democrats begrudgingly tell us North Korea would not be returning hostages and talking denuclearization absent Trump’s mad-man routine. The stilted, scripted, sclerotic ways of tradition are not always terribly effective tactics."
  • Lest we get swept up in the theater, a senior GOP foreign policy official wrote us in March: "Kim Jong-un remains a murderous dictator ruling over brutal regime with death camps. Not someone who's looking  for peace."

Be smart: In their final conversation, President Obama warned Donald Trump his presidency would be defined by North Korea. Now, Trump himself sees a peace deal as his “great man” historic moment in power. 

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