The accidental threat

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A handout photograph from the German government shows a group of leaders at the Group of Seven summit, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump, in Canada on June 9, 2018.

Donald J. Trump, despite historically low approval ratings at this stage of the presidency, must be loving his new job. The famed real-estate billionaire who has been a staple of the tabloid press on both sides of the Atlantic for over three decades now, was questioned on his real motives for running for office throughout 2015 and 2016. Some are inclined to speculate on this point still.

For many, the reasons were purely  pecuniary  - occupying the Oval Office could have tremendous knock-on-effects for the Trump brand, which is the instrument through which the Trump Organization makes most of its money these days.

Others saw in Trump a protectionist who bristled at the large deficits in the country’s trading account with almost every other country in the world, and waded into politics to change that, bashing China with particular relish along the way.

Yet that is to give the protectionist in Trump far too much credit for the actions emanating from the man, who is over and above everything else a narcissist. That remains the best lens through which to analyse and predict the behaviour of the current occupant of the White House.

Now or never

The eyes of the world upon them, President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un headed on Monday into their historic summit balancing the elusive promise of peace against the specter of a growing nuclear threat, reported AP. Yet even before they met, Trump announced plans to leave early, raising questions about whether his aspirations for an ambitious outcome had been scaled back.

The first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and a North Korean leader was to kick off at 9 a.m. Tuesday with a handshake, an image sure to be devoured from Washington to Pyongyang and beyond. Trump and Kim planned to meet one-on-one for most of an hour— joined only by translators. Then aides to each were to come in for more discussions and a working lunch.

The two leaders have had an extraordinary up-and-down relationship over the past 18 months.

Mr Trump’s first year in office was marked by bitter exchanges between himself and Mr Kim - as North Korea conducted several ballistic missile tests in defiance of the international community.

The US president successfully sought to tighten UN sanctions on the North, and to get its traditional ally, China, to go along. He also famously vowed to unleash “fire and fury” if Pyongyang kept threatening the US. Mr Kim has called him “mentally deranged” and a “dotard”.

The US president and North Korean leader are staying in separate hotels, not far from each other, and will meet on Tuesday (June 12) at a hotel in Sentosa, a popular tourist island a few hundred metres off the main island of Singapore.

In the run-up to the talks in Singapore, Trump had optimistically predicted the two men could strike a nuclear deal or forge a formal end to the Korean War in the course of a single meeting or over several days. But on the eve of the summit, the White House unexpectedly announced Trump would depart Singapore by Tuesday evening, meaning his time with Kim would be fairly brief. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to keep expectations for the summit in check.

“We are hopeful this summit will have set the conditions for future successful talks,” Pompeo said, describing a far more modest goal than Trump had outlined days earlier.

The sudden change in schedule added to a dizzying few days of foreign policy activity for Trump, who shocked U.S. allies over the weekend when he used a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized economies in Canada to alienate America’s closest friends in the West. Lashing out over trade practices, Trump lobbed insults at his G-7 host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trump left the summit early, and as he flew to Singapore, he tweeted that he was yanking the U.S. out of the group’s traditional closing statement.

As for Singapore, the White House said Trump was leaving early because negotiations had moved “more quickly than expected,” but gave no details about any possible progress in preliminary talks. On the day before the meeting, weeks of preparation appeared to pick up in pace, with U.S. and North Korean officials meeting throughout Monday at a Singapore hotel.

Trump’s early exit will be his second from a summit in just a few days.

As he was trying to build a bridge with Kim, he was smashing longtime alliances with Western allies with his abrasive performance at the G-7. After his premature departure from Quebec, he continued to tweet angrily at Trudeau from Singapore, saying Monday, “Fair Trade is now to be called Fool Trade if it is not Reciprocal.”

Trump advisers cast his actions as a show of strength before the Kim meeting.

Alluding to the North’s concerns that giving up its nuclear weapons could surrender its primary deterrent to forced regime change, Pompeo told reporters that the U.S. was prepared to take action to provide North Korea with “sufficient certainty” that denuclearization “is not something that ends badly for them.”

He would not say whether that included the possibility of withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, but said the context of the discussions was “radically different than ever before.”

 “I can only say this,” Pompeo said. “We are prepared to take what will be security assurances that are different, unique, than America’s been willing to provide previously.”

The North has faced crippling diplomatic and economic sanctions as it has advanced development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Pompeo held firm to Trump’s position that sanctions will remain in place until North Korea denuclearizes — and said they would even increase if diplomatic discussions did not progress positively.

Experts believe the North is close to being able to target the entire U.S. mainland with its nuclear-armed missiles, and while there’s deep skepticism that Kim will quickly give up those hard-won nukes, there’s also some hope that diplomacy can replace the animosity between the U.S. and the North.

While advisers say Trump has been reviewing briefing materials, the president insists his gut instincts will matter most when he gets in the room with Kim. He told reporters he thinks he will know almost immediately whether a deal can be made, saying: “I will know, just my touch, my feel. That’s what I do.”

 “People are saying, “Is he sane?” I have no idea. I can tell you this, and a lot of people don’t like when I say it, but he was a young man of 26 or 27 when he took over from his father, when his father died. He’s dealing with obviously very tough people, in particular the generals and others. And at a very young age, he was able to assume power. A lot of people, I’m sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else. And he was able to do it. So obviously, he’s a pretty smart cookie.”

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