As he made history Sunday by becoming the first United States president to cross the demilitarized zone into North Korea, Donald Trump was joined not by national security adviser John Bolton, but by Tucker Carlson. In some ways, the choice makes sense—the Fox News host has counseled the president in the past, apparently including urging him not to attack Iran, something Bolton had encouraged. It also makes sense that Trump wouldn’t want Bolton around; it’s no secret Pyongyang considers the hawkish national security adviser, who once called for a preemptive strike against North Korea, persona non grata. Trump’s attempt to continue nuclear talks, which broke down in February when he walked away from the negotiating table, surely stood a better chance without Bolton there.
But allowing Carlson to tag along—and banishing Bolton to Mongolia to “to consult with officials on regional security issues”—only added to the bizarre spectacle of the impromptu meeting which was, like much of Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, more about pageantry than policy. It began, as things often do for Trump, with a tweet and devolved into something of a logistical nightmare. As Trump and Kim Jong Un shook hands in the DMZ, and the president took several steps to the north—“Would you like me to step across?” Trump asked Kim, “I’d be very proud to do it”—American press tussled with North Korean security officials. “A scuffle broke out between reporters and North Korean security guards, with officials shoving and trying to block the press from capturing the moment, the Associated Press reported, noting that newly-appointed White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham came away from the encounter with bruises. (It was “surreal,” Ivanka Trump, the president’s ever-so-qualified daughter recalled later.)
For his part, Carlson seemed to excuse Trump’s glad-handing to his Fox co-workers. North Korea, he told Fox & Friends, is a “disgusting place, obviously, so there’s no defending it. On the other hand, you’ve got to be honest about what it means to lead a country,” he added. “It means killing people. Not on the scale that the North Koreans do, but a lot of countries commit atrocities, including a number that we’re closely allied with.”
This, of course, is the approach the president has always taken with North Korea. Beyond affirming Kim as a leader on the world stage, however, it’s not clear what his efforts have actually accomplished. The two agreed to resume talks, and on Monday, the New York Times reported that the White House is considering asking for a nuclear freeze rather than denuclearization—a proposal that would run counter to historical U.S. policy, and indeed to what many in the Trump administration have said they would tolerate. Bolton denied the report early Monday, though it’s possible that he and his staff are being shut out of the administration’s planning on North Korea, perhaps in favor of Carlson and other ad hoc advisers. Either way, the president’s fawning, improvisational diplomacy with the dictator—along with the White House invite he extended to him—has alarmed observers, who believe Trump is being used by his North Korean counterpart. “Trump isn’t negotiating with North Korea,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy wrote Sunday. “He is normalizing North Korea.”
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