Witcover: Trump's change of heart on North Korea summit

In the old language of the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, President Donald Trump "has just blinked" regarding the planned meeting with North Korea dicatator Kim Jong Un. In President John F. Kennedy's day, a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union was avoided. This time, who knows?

The president's withdrawal was cast in the most polite terms, but it suggested he was seizing the slightest of provocations to extricate himself from an unfavorable situation. He wrote to Mr. Kim that because of the "tremendous anger and open hostility displayed" by North Korea in a recent statement, the meeting "will not take place."

The offensive comment apparently was a Kim aide's calling Vice President Mike Pence "a political dummy" for a reference to "the Libya model" as a solution to dealing with a foreign leader, wherein Muammar Gadhafi was removed from office and assassinated in 2011.

In any event, the comments were a transparently awkward way to shift the blame for the breakdown in the summit meeting planned in Singapore for June 12. Mr. Trump then fell all over himself in an apologetic note to Mr. Kim that also heaped praise on him for the release of three long-held American prisoners.

The president, in himself calling off the summit, wrote: "If you change your mind having to do with this most important meeting, please do not hesitate to call me or write," as if it was all just some social faux pas, and it was Mr. Kim who changed his mind, not Mr. Trump.

He went on, gushingly: "I felt a wonderful dialogue was building up between you and me, and ultimately, it is only the dialogue that matters. Some day, I look very much forward to meeting you. In the meantime I want to thank you for the release of the three hostages who are now home with their families. That was beautiful gesture and was very much appreciated."

One cannot help wondering whether the president, now up to his ears in an attack on his own Justice Department and FBI to thwart the Mueller investigation, is seeking yet another diversion from it.

His original willingness to enter into what would have been an historic diplomatic event had brought him wide domestic and international approval, and the beginning in some quarters of a softening of his image as a bullying autocrat and warmonger.

Now he has reinforced the counter-image of a political leader under siege at home, increasingly committed to extricating himself from his own law-enforcement arm troubles, in yet another campaign to cast himself as the victim of a governmental "witch hunt' and a "Democratic hoax."

With former NewYork Mayor Rudy Giuliani now leading his legal defense in the manner of a Wild West gunslinger circling the wagons for a showdown at home, Mr. Trump seems now to be putting all focus on his own political survival, leaving nuclear holocaust for another day.

After sending novice Secretary of State Mike Pompeo back to Pyongyang to button down the summit, and with super-hawk John Bolton whispering in his ear as his new national security adviser, the president seems instead to be heading for cover on that front, at least for now.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer called Mr. Trump's odd letter to Mr. Kim "a sad example of the petulance and shallowness of the foreign policy being pursued by this president," and noted that "the dealings with North Korea have been sophomoric and without strategic or tactical merit."

A South Korean spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom, observed: "We are attempting to make sense of what, precisely, President Trump means." He was not the only one befuddled by this bizarre letter to the North Korean dictator.

From the outset of the announcement of the unprecedented summit, critics expressed reservations about Mr. Trump's qualifications to engage in it, and about the apparent lack of staff preparations for it in a State Department still understaffed after the departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The arrivals of Mr. Pompeo as his successor from the CIA and Mr. Bolton as White House national security adviser only intensified the concern. At least the postponement of the Singapore summit provides some breathing space among all the uncertainty.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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