Somewhat lost in the blur of the Singapore summit and its aftermath was President Trump's first post-inauguration interview with Special Report anchor Bret Baier. I'd like to circle back to that exchange, which occurred on Air Force One, as it was packed with interesting responses. The president's worst answer, bar none and by some distance, was the one highlighted in this post's headline. When Baier referenced the regime's surreal brutality and the murders committed at the direction of its dictator, Trump downplayed those crimes against humanity, opting instead for a near-instantaneous pivot to lavishly praising Kim:
BAIER: Kim Jong Un is "clearly executing people."— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) June 13, 2018
TRUMP: "He's a tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, tough people, and you take it over from your father ... if you could do that at 27-years old, I mean, that's 1 in 10,000 that could do that." (via FOX) pic.twitter.com/R8FfkREDYX
This was a dreadful answer, full stop. I fully understand Trump's instinct to rein in his anti-regime rhetoric in order to facilitate and cultivate a relationship in pursuit of successful peace negotiations. De-emphasizing Kim's monstrous brutality while important denuclearization talks are looming is a defensible choice. But striking that delicate balance does not require turning a blind eye to indisputable atrocities, and certainly does not justify lionizing one of the worst human rights abusers on the planet. As I wrote in my analysis earlier in the week (which defended a number of Trump's decisions about the summit), conservatives should not give Trump a carte blanche pass to do or say things that would have triggered a stentorian chorus of outraged denunciations if the previous president had done or said the exact same things. Imagine -- really, take a moment and try to imagine -- how the Right would have responded if Obama had literally saluted a top Iranian general, for instance (here's a thoughtful take on Trump's salute). Wasn't his bowing already roasted as a signal of weakness and unseemly deference? Baier followed up on the point about Kim's abysmal track record:
BB: But he's still done some really bad things.
DT: Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I mean, I could go through a lot of nations where bad things were done. Now look, with all of that being said, the answer is yes. I am going from today. I am going from maybe 90 days ago. Because we really started this. We got a call that he was going to the Olympics. He would like to go to the Olympics. And that was sort of the beginning of what we have right now and we are very far down the line.
Ignoring the casual moral relativism here, I think what Trump is indicating that yes, Kim and his cabal have perpetrated horrific acts, but for the purposes of denuclearization -- by far the top American priority vis-a-vis North Korea -- the US has an interest in looking forward. History didn't start 90 days ago, but considering the critical task at hand, there's utility in treating the current thaw as a new epoch; if the present moment truly represents a chance to write a new chapter, it's worth seizing that opportunity. That's true, even as we remain deeply offended by many of the regime's past and current actions. Trump should say that, not marvel at Kim's brilliance and 'toughness.' Indeed, the 'tough guy' fetish is one of the more alarming elements of Trump's evident worldview. On a more positive note, the president also gave two answers that I found very encouraging. Baier asked about this widely-cited quote Trump served up during his post-meeting press conference in Singapore:
"I think honestly he's going to do these things," Trump says of Kim Jong Un, then expresses doubt, saying he may stand before us in 6 months and admit he was wrong. Then adds: "I don't know that I'll ever admit that I was wrong. I'll find some kind of excuse."— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) June 12, 2018
That last bit struck me as a self-aware wink, but was he serious when he conceded that trusting Kim might end up being exposed as a mistake? Here's that back-and-forth:
BB: There was one part of the news conference that I think you were kind of joking, that six months from now you could say this was a mistake…
DT: Oh sure. No...
BB: …and I am never going to tell you that..
DT: It's not joking. It could happen. I mean all of a sudden…
BB: But you don't believe that?
DT: It's deals. Whether it’s this, which is so important, or buying a building, or doing whatever you may be doing. No, I don't think that’s going to happen but I said I only consider it successful if it gets done. I think we have done something very historic already in one way. But to me a success is when it gets done.
Trump's answers here tell us two important things: First, he is not looking at this situation with overly rose-colored glasses. Yes, it's important for him to believe in the process he's guiding, but he's not delusional about the North Koreans. He recognizes there's a real chance this could all implode. Deals fall apart, in foreign policy and in real estate. He's signaling the knows the drill and is prepared to walk away if Kim tries to deceive him or exploit his good-faith overtures. Second, he's also explicitly saying that while he's very pleased with the opening round in Singapore, genuine success has not yet been achieved. "A success is when it gets done," he states, quite correctly. I wrote on Tuesday that too many critics were blasting the so-called agreement as if it were a finished product. It's not, and the president is reaffirming that it's merely a jumping off to potential success. That is exactly the right attitude. We also flagged Sec. Pompeo's answer yesterday that of course there will be an "in depth" verification system established to track and monitor the North Koreans' compliance. Trump also made the point -- very directly and succinctly -- that this is a non-negotiable, ironclad demand:
BB: And so verification you are confident you can set up the system.
DT: Yeah, I am totally confident. And if we can't, we can't have a deal. We have to be, you know, it has to be verified.
No verification, no deal. Period. It's good to see this assertion made crystal clear, in public, by the president himself. I'll leave you with the full interview, which includes some interesting Q & A about Russia and Vladimir Putin: