It was the ultimate made-for-TV moment.
The cameras were there as Donald Trump became the first sitting U.S. President to set foot in North Korea.
He entered the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas… took a dozen or so steps…and officially entered the North.
For Trump, who built his public persona as a wheeler-dealer on a reality television program, it was the ultimate in showmanship.
Thirty-two hours after he issued an invite on Twitter to North Korean leader Kim Jung Un for an impromptu get together, they greeted each other in the DMZ with a firm handshake and a friendly pat on the back before taking that historic walk.
The scene was dramatic — those there called it chaotic. There was no agenda and little planning. But there was that handshake — that picture of Trump standing on North Korean soil. And those images were all the U.S. president apparently wanted or needed.
They agreed to resume talks on North Korea’s nuclear program with no outward sign that either side was willing to budge on their conditions for a deal.
But this was not about concrete results. Instead, it was an opportunity for Trump to put his “spin” on the state of relations between the U.S. and the North Koreans — casting himself as a “peacemaker.”
“There was great conflict here prior to our meeting in Singapore,” he told reporters in the DMZ before greeting Kim. “It’s been extremely peaceful,” he said and then added, “it’s been a whole different world.”
This from a man who has little if anything to show for his outreach to the despot of Pyongyang — a brutal dictator who will surely use the photos of that handshake on home soil to boost his image with his own people.
And Trump did not disappoint — he gave Kim Jung Un the words he was looking for: “stepping across that bridge was a great honor… (we have) a great friendship.”
The picture — the symbol — was so much greater than the substance.
“It’s all for the show,” says Julian Castro, a former Obama cabinet member who is running for the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
That sums it up pretty well.
And it seems that is the bottom line whenever Trump travels abroad: It is all about the show. He is not so much engaging in diplomacy as he is overseeing a television extravaganza.
It’s already becoming an issue in the 2020 election. Julian Castro may have been the first of the Democratic Party hopefuls to speak out about the Trump-Kim get-together. He was certainly not the last.
The would-be nominee with the most direct foreign policy experience — former Vice-President Joe Biden — waited a day after the photo-opportunity in the DMZ and then issued a lengthy statement.
“Diplomacy is important, but diplomacy requires a strategy, a process and competent leadership to develop,” he said, noting that despite all the summits, letters and exchanges of praise between Trump and Kim “we still don’t have a single commitment from North Korea.”
And then there was this: “Coddling of dictators at the expense of American national security and interests is one of the most dangerous ways he is diminishing us on the world stage.”
You could see that on vivid display not just during Donald Trump’s stop in the Korean DMZ, but in the days leading up to it when he conferred with other world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
Again, the images told the story — the story of a U.S. president cozying up to the leaders of Russia and Saudi Arabia, two countries with abysmal human rights records.
He joked with Vladimir Putin over their mutual disdain of journalists. At one point, Trump actually said “get rid of them!”
And then there was the moment at the start of their bilateral meeting on the summit sidelines when Trump was asked if he would warn Russia not to meddle in American election.
His response? The U.S. president grinned and in an almost-mocking tone looked at the Russian leader and said “don’t meddle in the election.”
Putin returned the smile.
There were also lots of smiles when he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And their friendship was very much on display when they posed side-by-side for a photo of world leaders taken at the summit’s end. The prince was on Trump’s left. Turkey’s Erdogan was to his right.
At a breakfast meeting in Osaka, President Trump referred to the prince as his “friend” and praised him for taking steps to open up the kingdom. But he said nothing in Mohammed bin Salman’s presence about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi journalist-in-exile who wrote for the Washington Post. He was brutally murdered last October at Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul.
Later, during a news conference in Osaka, Trump called the killing “horrible” but claimed “nobody so far has pointed directly a finger at the future king of Saudi Arabia.”
Nobody, that is, but a U.N special rapporteur who concluded that Khashoggi was “the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible.”
It’s classic Trump. Forget the facts… distort the truth… make despots your “friends.”
In one weekend, he met with three men accused of masterminding election fraud… ordering a grisly murder… and ruling over a “hermit kingdom” with an iron fist.
It’s all about the deals no matter who the dealmaker is on the other side of the table. It is all about the show.