What the Nikki Haley mess says about the increasingly likely Trump-Kim Jong Un summit

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley as they attend a session on reforming the United Nations at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Two big foreign policy stories broke Tuesday night:

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley effectively said the White House bungled its announcement of new Russia sanctions.

We found out President Trump’s planned meeting with Kim Jong Un is very real – so real that CIA Director Mike Pompeo made a secret trip to meet with Kim.

The juxtaposition of those two stories is . . . not great. And it reinforces the potential downside of high-stakes negotiations involving a White House and a president who often appears to struggle to execute a coherent and deliberate strategy.

Trump’s posture toward North Korea and his decision to meet with the North Korean leader have largely been met with applause by the American people and cautious optimism by experts and politicians. Even though North Korea has actually sought such talks for years, there is a sense that crippling economic sanctions – sanctions won by the Trump administration in the often-obstinate United Nations Security Council – may have pushed North Korea toward legitimate denuclearization talks.

But the potential downside of a face-to-face involving the president of the United States – especially one as unpredictable and unversed in diplomacy as Trump – is also very real. There are highly sensitive talks involving a nuclear-armed foreign dictator who has made being able to strike at the U.S. homeland his goal (with the goal posts rapidly approaching). And Trump has often rattled his saber right back, threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea. Combine that with Trump’s apparent lack of message discipline and disregard for preparation, and who knows what could come out of this unprecedented summit? There’s a decidedly non-zero chance it will be bad.

Which brings us to Haley’s comments. The United Nations ambassador said Sunday that new sanctions would be coming Monday. But rather than correct her, the White House anonymously suggested Monday that she had erred or been confused. Then chief White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Tuesday decided to say those things on-the-record.

That drew a curt and powerful response from Haley. “With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” she said in a statement.

Haley is essentially saying Trump changed his mind after the White House had decided to deploy new sanctions against Russia and had given her the go-ahead to announce it; it’s difficult to read her comments any other way. That’s a hell of a way to do business, especially when dealing with something as substantive and serious as sanctions against an antagonistic foreign power. Haley has now been undermined – with her words perhaps not carrying as much weight on the world stage as before – and the White House looks like it didn’t have its ducks in a row.

These are the people who are currently preparing historic talks with the leader of an even-more-antagonistic foreign power, and this is a president whose ability to negotiate in his meeting with Kim could determine the fate of both a deal and people’s lives. If the White House doesn’t have a game plan to execute or Trump can’t or won’t execute it, that could pose major problems. The chief rule of these summits is “no surprises,” and Trump doesn’t seem to do “no surprises.”

This new episode follows, of course, upon Trump’s failure last month to abide by talking points on his phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin – including a “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” warning about Putin’s re-election win and an unheeded plea to bring up the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. So, since the Kim meeting was greenlit, we now have two episodes in two months of Trump proving he can’t stick to a foreign policy script or even general guidelines.

It may be time to start assuming the same thing can and likely will happen with Kim. Exactly what that means practically speaking, who knows?

Share