A beautiful letter here, a beautiful letter there

Oh I misunderstood what Trump said about Kim’s murder of his brother – it wasn’t that he would do the same thing in Kim’s position, it was that he wouldn’t let the CIA spy on North Korea.

Soooooo that’s horrifying. Here we are, wishing Trump had merely endorsed a murder.

David Graham at the Atlantic cleared it up for me.

Two accounts, a new book by the Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield and a Wall Street Journal story, report that Kim’s brother Kim Jong Nam was a CIA informant. Kim Jong Nam was killed in a shocking chemical-weapons attack in the Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017. Trump was asked about the revelation as he left the White House for a trip to Iowa, and his answer was jarring.

“I see that, and I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong Un,” Trump said. “I think the relationship is very well, but I appreciated the letter. I saw the information about the CIA with regard to his brother or half brother, and I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices. I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices. I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong Un.”

I thought he meant “if I had a brother who was spying on me I’d murder him in a New York minute.” Is he now going to tell the CIA to stop gathering intel on Kim?

American officials often avoid discussing sensitive stories like this with the press, and one reason for that caution became clear as Trump continued. The context of his remarks makes clear that what Trump “wouldn’t let … happen” is not Kim Jong Nam’s killing, but his cultivation as an American asset. Trump has said that former President Barack Obama described North Korea as the nation’s greatest foreign-policy challenge, and Trump has taken that cue, making it a major priority. By saying he wouldn’t allow American intelligence to cultivate an asset so close to Kim, he’s saying he wouldn’t use spying to better understand the country’s biggest overseas challenge.

Put another way, he’s ruling out having the best information possible headed into high-stakes negotiations. Tying one hand behind your back like this makes sense only if you have a messianic belief in your own negotiating prowess—which Trump does, despite the collapse of the most recent round of talks.

Or if you’re so engorged with gratified vanity that you think the North Korean dictator really does love you and deserves all your best favors.

The guiding principle of Trump’s interactions with Kim has been to try to flatter Kim’s ego and play the good cop, while allowing other members of his administration to take the hard line. Arguably, that paid off in getting Kim to negotiate, even though no deal has been struck. But it also risks letting Kim get away with heinous acts, because the risk of offending him is that negotiations will break off. Moreover, this incident shows it works both ways: Kim grasps the importance of flattering Trump, as with the “beautiful” letter he sent the president. A beautiful letter here, a beautiful letter there, and pretty soon the president of the United States is apologizing to you after a report that you killed an American informant.

Trump is a cheap date.

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