Trump sparked behind-the-scenes commotion ahead of meeting

WASHINGTON • Some of the most intense drama surrounding US President Donald Trump's summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came not across the negotiating table, but in the days and hours leading up to Tuesday's historic meeting - a behind-the-scenes flurry of commotion prompted by Mr Trump himself.

After arriving in Singapore on Sunday, an antsy and bored Mr Trump urged his aides to demand that the meeting with Mr Kim, Chairman of North Korea's State Affairs Commission, be pushed up by a day - to Monday, and had to be talked out of altering the long-planned and carefully negotiated summit date on the fly, according to two people familiar with preparations for the event.

"We're here now," the President said, according to the people. "Why can't we just do it?"

Mr Trump's impatience, coupled with a tense staff-level meeting between the two sides on Sunday, left some aides fearful that the entire summit might be in peril.

Ultimately, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders persuaded Mr Trump to stick with the original plan, arguing that the President and his team could use the time to prepare, said people familiar with the talks.

They also warned him that he might sacrifice wall-to-wall television coverage of his summit if he abruptly moved the long-planned date to Monday in Singapore, which would be Sunday night in the United States.

Mr Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Centre for the National Interest, described the Singapore extravaganza as "21st-century diplomacy" with a Trumpian twist. "It felt more reality TV than it did an old-school 1980s, Cold War summit," he said.

"Trump is going to do it differently. He's going to do it in a media-savvy way. The very long handshakes, the long corridor walks - it's all his distinct way."

At one point, after watching North Korean television, which is entirely state-run, the President talked about how positive the female North Korean news anchor was towards Mr Kim, according to two people familiar with his remarks.

He joked that even the administration-friendly Fox News was not as lavish in its praise as the state TV anchor, one of the people added, and that maybe she should get a job on US television instead.

At another point, Mr Trump marvelled at how "tough" the North Korean guards seemed, noting that they were always stone-faced and refused to shake hands, the two people said.

Behind the scenes before the summit, other dynamics were unfolding.

The language in the agreement that Mr Trump announced with Mr Kim, for instance, was almost entirely pre-written before Mr Trump arrived in Singapore - a standard diplomatic practice for leaders' meetings, which are normally preceded by extensive negotiations and discussions between lower-level officials.

But Mr Trump repeatedly asserted that the final agreement was based on his ability to size up Mr Kim in person and build a working relationship with him.

"I know when somebody wants to deal and I know when somebody doesn't, the President told reporters on Tuesday.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who spoke to Mr Trump as he flew home from Singapore on Air Force One, said the President was simply being his natural "salesman" self.

"He is selling condos, that's what he is doing," Mr Graham said.

"He's approaching North Korea as a distressed property with a cash-flow problem. Here's how we can fix it."

In a news conference on Tuesday in Singapore, Mr Trump hinted at his dreams of real estate diplomacy, noting that he had played Mr Kim a video - derided by some as more akin to North Korean propaganda than the work of the President's National Security Council - to show him the possibilities of a deal with the West.

"As an example, they have great beaches," Mr Trump said.

"You see that whenever they're exploding their cannon into the ocean, right? I said, 'Boy, look at the view. Wouldn't that make a great condo behind?'"

Ms Louise Sunshine, a former long-time executive at the Trump Organisation, said that Mr Trump "deserves a lot of credit" for simply brokering a face-to-face meeting with Mr Kim.

"Donald represents the concept," she said. "His focus was on creating eye contact, a bond, a relationship. I don't think he was there to negotiate. He was there to create a relationship. It was all about the relationship."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2018, with the headline 'Trump sparked behind-the-scenes commotion ahead of meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe