President Trump unabashedly confirmed reports that he’s not doing much to prepare for next week's historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, unlike his predecessors who spent hours with advisors and briefing books before such high-stakes meetings.
"I think I'm very well prepared," Trump said Thursday at the outset of an Oval Office meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
"I don't think I have to prepare very much. It's about attitude," he said. "I think I've been prepared for this summit for a long time, as has the other side."
The president, who canceled the summit two weeks ago only to revive it a week later, cautioned reporters that the meeting could still fall through. Assuming he and Kim do come together on Tuesday in Singapore as scheduled, Trump said that the meeting "will not be just a photo-op," and probably would be just the first of several he’ll have with the North Korean leader.
During an afternoon news conference beside Abe in the Rose Garden, Trump expressed optimism about the summit, predicting it would be "a great success." Asked about eventually normalizing relations with long-isolated North Korea, Trump said that outcome is "something I would expect to do," but only "when everything is complete."
In the president’s view, as he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo separately underscored, “everything” entails Kim giving up his nuclear arsenal after big advances over the last year. Yet an agreement to “denuclearize” is something that few experts on the region expect Kim to be willing to accept.
“They have to de-nuke,” Trump said.
At the news conference, Trump continued to temper the expectations for success that he initially had set for the summit after agreeing in March to meet with Kim. He called the Singapore meeting a "first step" and said a lasting peace could take years if not decades to achieve.
The president did not rule out signing an agreement during next week's summit to officially declare an end to the Korean War.
Trump also said he would probably invite Kim to the White House — "if the summit goes well."
For the first time, he described the letter he received from Kim last Friday, hand-delivered by Kim's top deputy, that was an impetus for rescheduling the summit. The letter was "just a greeting,” Trump said, “nothing more than 'we look forward to seeing you.'
"I appreciated it very much," he added.
Pressed on what concessions the U.S. is willing to make, Trump said he would not consider sanctions relief for North Korea until it takes action to denuclearize.
"Maximum pressure is absolutely in effect," Trump said, using his phrase for describing the international sanctions intended to change North Korea’s bellicose behavior.
"We don't use the term anymore because we're going into a friendly negotiation," he added.
The president, who believes that his rhetoric has been key in bringing Kim to the negotiating table, instructed reporters to pay attention to his language following the meeting with Kim: "If you hear me using the term ‘maximum pressure,’ you'll know the negotiations didn't go very well."
Abe, who has been miffed about Trump's unpredictable negotiating style, and the administration’s failure to keep Japan informed, was careful not to reveal any daylight between the two leaders. He told American and Japanese reporters that they had an "in-depth and candid exchange of views" and that their two countries "are always together."
Trump agreed. "The bonds between our nations are stronger than ever before," he said.
Abe also secured a public commitment from Trump to ask Kim next week about releasing a number of Japanese kidnapped years ago by North Korea. Resolution of that issue, which looms large in Japan, is politically important to Abe, and he has appealed to Trump before for help in pressuring North Korea to reunite the abductees with their families in Japan.
"We will be discussing that with North Korea," Trump said. "Absolutely."
Trump thanked China’s President Xi Jinping, whom he had seemed to blame just weeks ago for throwing the U.S.-North Korean diplomacy off course by his private talks with Kim. Citing China’s efforts to close off its border with North Korea to help maintain the economic sanctions, Trump said, "China has never worked with us like this. I give them a lot of credit."
The president spoke amid heightened attention to his apparent lack of preparation for the summit with Kim, and his preoccupation — as evidenced by his tweets — on the Russia investigation and various political enemies. Trump has not convened his National Security Council to advise him, according to multiple West Wing officials.
Although John Bolton, his national security advisor, is attending the summit, Trump is relying heavily on Pompeo, who has met twice with Kim, and above all on his own instincts. He has emphasized that point in private conversations with aides, and publicly on Thursday.
Several Democrats and foreign policy veterans were critical of Trump’s admitted lack of preparation.
"With ICBMs and nuclear warheads in the hands of North Korea, the situation is far too dangerous for seat-of-the-pants negotiating," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, wrote on Twitter.
Pompeo, in a briefing for White House reporters, said that he and Trump had been discussing North Korea "for months" and that he was "very confident" the president was prepared.
The secretary of State also said that his two previous meetings with Kim had convinced him that North Korea is serious about denuclearization, and that Kim understands the U.S. demands for a "complete, verifiable and irreversible" end to his nation’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
If a deal is reached, Pompeo expressed hope that it would be ratified by Congress to give Kim more confidence that the agreement won't change under future administrations. The multinational nuclear deal that the Obama administration brokered with Iran in 2015 was not a ratified treaty, making it easier for Trump to abandon it.