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Winning the News Cycle: Trump’s Made-for-TV Singapore Summit

Peace in our time? Or just a waste of our time?

Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shake hands following a signing ceremony during their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.

Probably the most vapid phenomenon in modern American politics is something known as “winning the news cycle.” The thinking goes that if your version of events dominates the media coverage during a given news cycle, you “win” that day. Stack up enough days, continues the theory, and you win the week, the month, the year, the next election, and so forth.

It’s an utterly substance-free tactic — if your “version of events” is a ball of brazen lies, as it all too often is, you still “win the day” if the media is carrying your water — that has never been more vividly on display than it was this week in Singapore. Donald Trump was not seeking peace when he met Kim Jong Un on Tuesday. He wanted the handshake picture so he could set his mighty spin machine to “11” and turn it loose. He wanted to “win the news cycle,” and credit where credit is due, he did exactly that.

The joint statement signed by Kim and Trump after the summit, however, fell far short of the fanfare afforded it within the news cycle. While Trump made concessions that some anti-war activists have hailed as a positive de-escalation of tensions and possibly the beginning of a peace process — including announcing an end to the joint military drills in South Korea — he did not extract any concessions worth noting in return. While the joint statement called for “complete denuclearization,” it fell far short on some vital details: A timeline for disarmament, a process for verification, and what other nations, if any, will be involved. “We’ll talk about talking about talking about stuff” was the agreement he came away with. Pretty flimsy in the main.

In order to establish the proper context for Tuesday’s events, please watch this video. It was put together by the National Security Council, and Trump played it for Kim on a tablet during their remarkably tiny meeting. “Destiny Pictures presents a story of opportunity,” intones the narrator over a montage of disjointed images. “A new story, a new beginning. One of peace. Two men, two leaders, one destiny. A story about a special moment in time, when a man is presented with one chance which may never be repeated. What will he choose? To show vision and leadership? Or not?”

“This trailer has everything,” reports Ryan Koronowski for ThinkProgress, “including a man dunking a basketball, drones delivering packages, speedboats, babies, Sylvester Stallone in the Oval Office, children in bumper cars, horses running through the water, missile launches, CAT scans, waterslides, Kim and Trump acting like world leaders, and that special effect where the celluloid of the film appears to burn up to signify serious military consequences.”

Some moments beggar description. Give me a thousand chances and I would not be able to adequately explain how perfectly insipid this bit of tablet-borne propaganda is, nor could I properly quantify the seamless strangeness of its use as some sort of bargaining tool. It looks for all the world like something an intrepid high school AV club might knock together before The Big Game.

Trump was right about one thing, certainly. With that video in hand, he didn’t have to prepare for the summit much at all. Watch this, Kim, and then let’s talk about beachfront property.

There was a time when comparing a political leader to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain constituted a mortal insult. Chamberlain looked into Adolf Hitler’s eyes and basically handed him the bulk of Europe with a piece of paper. That’s a tough track record to match, but at least Chamberlain meant well; he honestly believed he was stopping a war.

The same cannot be said for Donald Trump, who should be barred from ever leaving the District of Colombia again, lest he give further aid and comfort to every strongman dictator on Earth while setting our relationships with centuries-old allies on fire.

Kim Jong Un is not Hitler, but he is a dangerous menace who treats his people like cattle in line for the slaughterhouse. The crimes of the North Korean regime “entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” according to a 2014 United Nations report. According to Amnesty International, “North Korea is in a category of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”

It’s not surprising that Trump would find common cause with such a regime, given his avowed devotion to the practice of torture and his ruthless separation of children from their parents at the southern border. The North Korean regime is accused of, among other things, the “forcible transfer of populations.” That sounds an awful lot like what ICE is up to all across the US, at Trump’s behest. In Singapore, birds of a fascist feather were indeed flocking together.

For Trump, the grim human rights abuses endorsed by Kim were merely speed bumps on the way to a photo opportunity. Referring to North Korea’s long record of brutal human rights abuses, Trump explained, “It’s a rough situation over there, there’s no question about it. It’s rough in a lot of places by the way, not just there.” Speaking of the estimated 100,000 political prisoners in North Korea currently enduring torturous conditions, he said, “I think they are one of the great winners today.”

In an interview with Greta Van Susteren, Trump said of Kim, “Really, he’s got a great personality. He’s a funny guy, he’s very smart, he’s a great negotiator. He loves his people, not that I’m surprised by that, but he loves his people.” When pressed on the subject of North Korea’s human rights record, Trump said, “Look, he’s doing what he’s seen done, if you look at it.” In other words, blame Daddy. Having rotten fathers is definitely something Trump and Kim have in common.

That hardly explains Trump’s complete dismissal of North Korea’s gruesome treatment of its own people, however. What does?

The New York Times editorial board took a crack at the question: “Whatever he does or does not understand about history or policy or statecraft, Mr. Trump has a keen sense of how to engage authoritarian thugs who crave respect and legitimacy. It’s how he’s wired. Mr. Trump has a deep and abiding fondness for strongmen. The more ruthlessly they have had to act to hold on to power, the more he respects them. The world sneers at strongmen like Mr. Kim, Mr. Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines … and Mr. Trump feels similarly disrespected. Dispositionally speaking, these are Mr. Trump’s people.”

Trump’s fondness for strongmen like Kim is having immediate consequences. Trump’s decision to cancel the joint military exercises planned between Seoul and the United States shocked and dismayed the leaders of South Korea, other US allies in the region and his own Pentagon. “Mr. Trump’s promise to end joint military exercises with Seoul left many South Koreans stunned,” reported Eric Schmitt. “The annual exercises have been an integral part of the alliance, forming the bulwark of South Korea’s defense against North Korea and Seoul’s sense of security among bigger powers in the region.”

Spokespeople for the US military were equally gobsmacked. “We will continue with our current military posture,” said one, “until we receive updated guidance from the Department of Defense.” Put another way, the president just contradicted our standing orders at the last minute out of a clear blue sky, so we’re just going to wait for the next brick to drop. This is no way to run an army.

Trump’s explanation for cancelling exercises South Korea depends on for its continued existence is, shall we say, unique in the annals of diplomacy. This is best read out loud for full effect:

Yes, we’ve done exercises for a long period of time working South Korea. And we call them war games, that I call them war games, and they’re tremendously expensive, the amount of money that we spend on that is incredible. And South Korea contributes but not a hundred percent, which is certainly a subject that we have to talk to them about also. And that has to do with the military expense and also the trade. So, we’re doing that, we actually have a new deal with South Korea in terms of the trade deal. But we have to talk them, and we have to talk to many countries about treating us fairly.

But the war games are very expensive, we pay for a big majority of them, we fly in bombers from Guam, I said it when I first started, I said, where do the bombers come from? Guam, nearby, I said, Oh, great. Nearby. Where is nearby? Six and a half hours. Six and a half hours? That’s a long time for these big massive planes to be flying to South Korea to practice and then drop bombs all over the place and then go back to Guam. I know a lot about airplanes, it’s very expensive.

Peeling a trillion dollars in revenue from the federal budget and giving it to rich people is totally in line with proper budgetary priorities, but paying for military exercises in South Korea is a bridge too far? Trump knows a lot about airplanes, though, so that settles that.

Meanwhile residents of Seoul continue to endure the reality that some 15,000 rockets and artillery pieces are aimed at them only 35 miles away, under the control of a nuclear-armed leader who cares as much for human life as Donald Trump cares for the truth.

Korean peace activists have strained to sound positive in the aftermath of the Singapore summit. “While understandably lean on details,” said Kevin Martin, President of Peace Action and Coordinator of the Korea Peace Network, “the Singapore summit statement commits North Korea to denuclearization, with corresponding, as yet unspecified security guarantees for North Korea, returning the remains of US soldiers, and a new relationship between the US and North Korea.”

Christine Ahn, international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, sounded a similarly hopeful note: “Although the document signed by Trump and Kim is thin, it is bold in its direction of re-orienting relations between historic adversaries. The compass has been set, now it is time to ensure that these principles are followed through with concrete action, and this is where it is crucial for civil society, especially women’s groups, to step in.”

I had reasonably high hopes myself for this summit before it began. War with North Korea is simply unthinkable. Dismantling its nuclear program is equally untenable: The project is spread across dozens of sites involving hundreds of buildings staffed by thousands of people, and we don’t know where most of all that actually is. Simply put, to the great gall of war-first neocons like John Bolton, North Korea is a nuclear state. They did it, and now we’re stuck with it, and that is how it is.

Negotiation is the only way out of this incredibly dangerous snare, and I will confess it freely: I hoped Nixon could go to China. The idea of Donald Trump playing peacemaker with one of the most vicious regimes on the planet was just weird enough to be plausible, and in any event, there is no shame in trying.

This was not trying, however. Singapore could have had much deeper impacts for the people involved, not to mention the entire world, but instead Trump produced another episode for his ongoing reality show, starring Kim Jong Un as the surprise guest who wins the big prize at the end. Kim’s prize: Legitimacy, international standing, and a pat on the back for his handling of the “rough situation” in North Korea. Trump and his people claim they are not finished yet. After witnessing this farce, I am not at all hopeful.

Donald Trump “won” the news day, but North Korea’s nuclear arsenal remains untouched and out of reach. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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