CIA chief says Trump aims to ‘solve a problem’ with North Korea talks, but critics express misgivings

President Trump disembarks from Air Force One in Moon Township, Pa., on Saturday for a rally. Trump spoke to the audience about North Korea: “Who knows what’s going to happen?”
President Trump disembarks from Air Force One in Moon Township, Pa., on Saturday for a rally. Trump spoke to the audience about North Korea: “Who knows what’s going to happen?”
(Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)

Senior administration officials expressed confidence Sunday that President Trump would not be taken advantage of by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un before and during any direct talks, but critics suggested the president’s impulsiveness and inexperience could spell disaster if a meeting between the two leaders proceeds as planned.

Trump would be the first sitting U.S. president to hold talks with a North Korean leader if he follows through on the decision Thursday to accept an invitation to meet with Kim. Amid rising tension over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic programs, the two leaders had exchanged a series of threats and insults in recent months.

Some foreign policy observers have attributed the president’s abrupt move at least in part to his fondness for grand gestures, but CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Trump “isn’t doing this for theater.”

“He’s going to solve a problem,” said Pompeo, who was interviewed on “Fox News Sunday.” He also insisted that Kim must be prepared to talk about “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” if the meeting is to go ahead.


Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin also sought to deflect any suggestion that the president would soften the U.S. stance toward North Korea in advance of the talks, even though many observers say that agreeing to direct talks is already a huge and prestige-enhancing concession to Kim.

“We’re not removing the maximum-pressure campaign,” Mnuchin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He added that “the sanctions are staying on” and that the United States would proceed with military exercises in the region as scheduled.

Trump, he said, simply planned to “sit down and see if he can cut a deal.”

Trump, in a boisterous campaign-style speech Saturday night in Pennsylvania, indicated he saw little in the way of pitfalls even if the talks failed.

“I think we will have tremendous success,” he said, describing prospective denuclearization as “the greatest deal for the world.” But he also raised the possibility that he may “leave fast” if conditions were not ripe.

“Who knows what’s going to happen?” Trump said.

White House spokesman Raj Shah, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” reiterated Washington’s expectation that North Korea would not engage in nuclear or missile testing in advance of any talks.

So far, North Korean officials have not verified any of the details about their offer to meet or any preconditions. All messages have been relayed through South Korea.

Some Trump critics praised the president’s pivot toward diplomacy but raised alarms about the administration’s diplomatic acumen. The White House has not named an ambassador to South Korea, who would under normal circumstances be a key interlocutor on matters regarding the North.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), interviewed on “Meet the Press,” cited the complexity of any talks, which she said were worrying against a backdrop of Trump’s failure to heed the advice of experts on the region.

“What I’m concerned about in these negotiations is we have a State Department that’s just been decimated,” Warren said. “And that really matters, because it means you don’t have the people who understand the economics, who speak the language, who know the history.”

Warren, who has frequently sparred with Trump, said she wanted to see the president succeed, “because if he succeeds, America succeeds.” But she said she feared that North Korean leaders would “take advantage” of him.

Concern also came from within the GOP ranks, with Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado saying that the North should have to do more to merit a meeting.

“I’d like to see come concrete steps — more than just a cessation of testing,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

A former top advisor to President Obama warned against allowing any element of showmanship to affect decision-making on North Korea, citing the “volatile” situation on the Korean peninsula.

“This is not a real estate deal or a reality show,” Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security advisor, said on ABC’s “This Week.” But he too expressed hopes that Trump’s unorthodox approach would yield good results.

“I think the nation should be rooting for diplomacy to work with North Korea, and I think that’s certainly President Obama’s view,” he said.

Despite the debate surrounding it, the North Korea announcement was in some ways a respite from a chaotic week at the White House.

Trump’s economic advisor Gary Cohn said he would depart after losing a bruising battle over the president’s decision to impose hefty tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.

The week also saw a gathering legal tempest over White House efforts to silence an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, who says she was paid $130,000 in hush money over a sexual affair with Trump more than a decade ago and wants to tell her story.

The White House was also under pressure to craft a coherent policy response to the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland., Fla., but has struggled to do so.

On Sunday night, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told reporters on a conference call that she would be heading a new commission on school safety, declaring, “We really need to focus on prevention and identifying risks early on.”

No timetable was set for the commission’s work. The Trump administration is calling on states and Congress to take action, and continues to press for the arming and training of some school personnel.

Young activists, including some survivors of the Parkland shooting, are calling for far more decisive measures to limit access to weapons used in war.



4:52 p.m.: This article was updated with background information and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ announcement.

This article was originally published at 11:05 a.m.