President Donald Trump embarks Wednesday on another round of high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, a follow-up encounter that officials in the US and across Asia are watching with trepidation as the President works to convert personal chemistry into real progress.
After a day-long flight from Washington, Trump spent the evening in Hanoi preparing for two days of talks with Kim. Before their first greeting on Wednesday evening, Trump was due to meet with Vietnamese officials, who are hosting the session and casting their capital as a city of peace.
Later, he’ll meet up with Kim at the French colonial Metropole Hotel, the city’s finest, for their first one-on-one conversation of the summit. A small dinner — billed by the White House as a social encounter — will follow. Trump will be joined there by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
But first, Trump kicked off his day at the mustard-colored presidential palace in Hanoi where he met with Vietnam’s President and General Secretary of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong and laid out the rationale for holding his second summit with Kim here.
“We (Trump and Kim) both felt very good about having this very important summit in Vietnam because you really are a good example of what can happen,” Trump said, pointing to Vietnam as the picture of a bustling and thriving economy.
The prospect of an economic boom in North Korea has been a core aspect of Trump’s pitch for Kim to abandon his country’s nuclear weapons. In Singapore, Trump showcased the modern Southeast Asian city-state as an example of the possibilities for North Korea with an influx of foreign investment.
Speaking during a separate meeting with Vietnam’s prime minister, Trump said he believes Kim “wants do something great” that “will be on par” with Vietnam’s transformation to “make North Korea into a great economic power.”
Hours before he is set to sit down with Kim, Trump expressed optimism — but also uncertainty — about the results he will achieve with Kim.
“It may very well turn out to be very successful,” Trump said. “Hopefully, it’s going to be successful. We’ll see what happens.”
But as Trump prepared for his meetings with Kim, another controversy involving him was brewing in Washington. As Trump shuffled from one photo opportunity to the next with Vietnam’s top officials, an advance copy of his former aide Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress became public.
In those remarks, Cohen will allege that Trump was aware of Roger Stone’s communications with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign and accuse Trump of lying about his dealings with Russia during the campaign. He also revived the controversy surrounding the medical deferments Trump obtained to avoid serving in the Vietnam War claiming he had bone spurs.
“I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now,” Cohen will tell Congress on Wednesday.
Before he departed for his meetings, Trump issued a series of tweets laying the foundation for his day — praising Vietnam and criticizing Democrats for their skepticism of his diplomatic gamble.
“The Democrats should stop talking about what I should do with North Korea and ask themselves instead why they didn’t do “it” during eight years of the Obama Administration?” Trump tweeted around 9:45 a.m. local time.
He did not specify what “it” referred to.
In another tweet, Trump praised Vietnam as “thriving like few places on earth.”
“North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize,” Trump wrote. “The potential is AWESOME, a great opportunity, like almost none other in history, for my friend Kim Jong Un. We will know fairly soon – Very Interesting!”
Ahead of their talks, it remained unclear what steps Kim was willing to take toward eliminating his nuclear arsenal or what concessions the US might offer in exchange. Teams from both countries had arrived earlier in Hanoi to negotiate an agreement for the two leaders to sign at the conclusion of their summit.
Potential outcomes could include agreements from North Korea to allow inspectors into certain nuclear sites or even a decision to close the expansive Yongbyon nuclear research center. At a minimum, US officials hope for a more defined road map that would lead North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
In exchange, Trump could offer to begin moving toward formal diplomatic relations through the exchange of liaison officers. Or he could agree to ending the Korean War, an attractive prospect for a President intent on winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
But expectations are low, and the US has appeared to abandon an earlier request that the second summit result in North Korea agreeing to provide a full accounting of its nuclear program. Inside the White House, some advisers have privately raised concerns that Trump could offer too much to Kim at the summit, which he insisted upon after his first meeting in June garnered widespread media attention.
The meetings come as Trump faces headwinds of scandal back home. His former personal attorney Michael Cohen spent Tuesday testifying behind closed doors on Capitol Hill ahead of a public session on Wednesday. He is expected to discuss publicly for the first time Trump’s role in some of the crimes his former lawyer pleaded guilty to last year, a source familiar with Cohen’s preparations for his testimony told CNN.
That will proceed overnight in Vietnam, though White House officials said there was little they could do to prevent the President from remaining awake in the wee hours to watch. Aides were also planning to take notes on the testimony to brief him.
The President has expressed regret previously that the various investigations have undermined him on the world stage. He’ll be particularly sensitive to appear undercut around Kim, with whom he’s cultivated a close friendship over the course of the past year.