Trump to Stephanopoulos: Notice I didn't pay $150 billion for a deal?

Just how far will Donald Trump go to get a deal with one of the most vicious dictatorial regimes on the planet? Trump’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos provides us with an interesting set of boundaries to the answer. When challenged to differentiate between this deal and the one cut by Trump’s predecessor with the other bloody and dictatorial neo-nuclear regime, Trump makes it clear that he’s not writing checks to get a few good headlines:

G: You’ve set the bar for nuclear agreements by criticizing the Iran nuclear deal, said it’s the worst deal ever made.

T: Terrible deal.

G: Does that mean that any deal with North Korea has to be tougher than the Iran deal?

T: I don’t think a deal could be softer. First of all, we’re not paying $150 billion, OK, we’re paying nothing from that standpoint other than, you will see what happens.

That underscores a significant point that I made in the earlier post — this isn’t really a deal. It’s more of a partnership agreement between Kim and Trump, a framework for cutting a deal later. Both sides have made preliminary concessions in order to continue the partnership; Kim has stopped both nuclear and missile testing, while we’ve suspended joint military exercises, apparently with South Korea’s blessing. Neither of those are permanent, and neither are the end-game goals for the two leaders. They’re pot-sweeteners, baby steps and nothing more, at least thus far. As Trump makes exceedingly clear in the interview, there wasn’t much on the table except complete denuclearization and security guarantees in response to them, but until that agreement comes into play, there haven’t been any other discussions.

So we’re not chasing talks with economic or permanent military concessions, at least thus far. That’s a relief. On the other hand, if it takes blowing some heavy-duty smoke up Kim Jong-un’s kilt, well, puff away:

G: What other kinds of security guarantees did you offer, did you put on the table?

T: Well, we’ve given him, I don’t wanna talk about it specifically, but we’ve given him, he’s going to be happy. His country does love him. His people, you see the fervor. They have a great fervor. They’re gonna put it together, and I think they’re going to end up with a very strong country, and a country which has people — that they’re so hard working, so industrious. I think if you look at South Korea, someday, maybe in the not too distant future, it will be something that.

G: You say his people love him. Just a few months ago you accused him of starving his people. And listen, here’s the rub. Kim is a brutal dictator. He runs a police state, forced starvation, labor camps. He’s assassinated members of his own family. How do you trust a killer like that?

T: George, I’m given what I’m given, okay? I mean, this is what we have, and this is where we are, and I can only tell you from my experience, and I met him, I’ve spoken with him, and I’ve met him. And this was, as you know, started very early and it’s been very intense. I think that he really wants to do a great job for North Korea. I think he wants to denuke, it’s very important. Without that, there’s nothing to discuss. That was on the table at the beginning, and you see a total denuclearization of North Korea — so important. And, he wants to do the right thing. Now, with all of that being said, I can’t talk about — it doesn’t matter. We’re starting from scratch. We’re starting right now, and we have to get rid of those nuclear weapons.

Come on, man. Kim’s people love him and have “a great fervor” for him because that’s the only way to stay out of the gulags. They love him in the same way that Winston loved Big Brother — as a survival mechanism. Trump’s catching all sorts of flak this morning, and rightly so, for that absurd statement. How would Trump know what North Koreans really think of Kim, anyway?

However, one can see this as an attempt to bookend the harsh rhetoric that apparently brought Kim to the table in the first place. Trump had consistently and almost literally belittled Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” an attempt to punch holes in the ego of the last hereditary Stalinist dictator — and whatever else one can say about Trump, he knows about ego. As Joe Scarborough reluctantly admitted today on Morning Joe, Trump may have had Kim’s number all along, and the smoke-blowing exercise might be just another ego manipulation by someone who seems to be expert at it. It doesn’t make the praise any less gross, but it also might be … effective. As Trump himself says, we can only wait and see, but as Scarborough adds, at least we’re heading in a much different direction than we have been over the last two decades.