Entry 70: On Wagging the Dog

March 21, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 70th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I thought I said all I care to say about the prospect of a Trump-Kim summit until more facts come in, but as I was stacking ammo for the “How the crisis ended” section of the final chapter, it dawned on me: Almost none of the commentary, news, or analysis about a Trump-Kim meeting mentions Trump’s domestic circumstances and motivations for his snap decision.

This is a glaring analytical gap among optimists and pessimists alike. And the more expertise the person weighing in has on Korea issues, the less likely they are to mention anything about the political circumstances giving rise to Trump’s agreement to a huge, high-risk meeting on the basis of nothing but a report from a policy official from another government.

That’s weird because Korea hands justify their professional existence on the faith that context is king; it’s the only way to justify countless hours spent on the details of the events, utterances, and other data emanating from a single country (two single countries in this case). Given the primacy that Korea experts (and all area studies experts) assign to context, it’s weird to then ignore the highly determinative context of Trump’s decision to agree to something that seemed unthinkable in a way that seemed unthinkable.

In the case of Trump, the scandal involving the former porn star Stormy Daniels was dominating headlines in the American newspapers of record at the time that Trump redirected those headlines to the story of a Trump-Kim summit. Trump even went into the White House press room—which he never does—to tell them a big juicy story was about to come out later that day. He primed the media to change the dominant narrative. And while he reiterated several times since that he still plans on meeting with Kim, he has also said on at least two occasions since that the meeting might not actually come together. In one instance he actually said “Who knows if it happens. If it doesn’t happen,” shrugging off whether it even mattered while hinting he was glad it was all the press talked about for two hours.

Separate from his penchant for defining and then replacing entire news cycles with one titillating story line after another, Trump’s business dealings are now part of Robert Mueller’s investigation. And that investigation might include charges of obstruction of justice against Trump.

It’s conceivable that Trump will pose a direct challenge to America’s constitutional order before his first time is done. It’s conceivable that Trump could be impeached. And it’s conceivable that Trump could even be indicted. His legitimacy as president is in doubt. Trump’s very concerned about all of this; he gives it away in how he uses twitter to undermine the legitimacy of the investigation itself. Delegitimating the administration of justice is a tactic of the despot, for what it’s worth. It’s why obstruction of justice charges are taken so seriously.

This is the context in which Trump randomly decided to accept an invitation on good faith from Kim Jong Un. Trump is addicted to driving the news and he needs a new story every day. Sometimes two or three, in fact. When he agreed to the Kim meeting, he betrayed a desire to steer news coverage to something more favorable. He was getting pummeled in the press over Daniels. And if the fate of the Korean Peninsula hangs in the balance—a narrative, by the way, that Trump has helped create through first bombast and now a “will he, won’t he” drama about the summit with Kim—then the nation’s security must come before any “witch hunt” by Mueller.

Trump’s parochial, personalistic motivations for announcing he’d meet with Kim Jong Un potentially undermine everything about it. There are lots of strategic and theoretical reasons to be pessimistic about a Trump-Kim meeting and whether it would ever take place. There are a few reasons for optimism too. But all the analysis and Pyongyang-ology is moot if ultimately Trump just wants to generate headlines and delegitimate his political enemies at home.

I wrote 563 words today. I felt like I could’ve done double that in principle—the juices were there—but my head was on a swivel bouncing from task to task today. Was feeling very distracted. The good news is that I’m nearly done with the first chapter on the Trump era.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.