For decades, Donald Trump has insisted the best dealmakers “know when to walk away from the table.”
In sticking to that blueprint under a hot international spotlight in Hanoi, the real estate tycoon-turned-president may have emerged from this week’s failed summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a winner, shattering critics’ argument that he was so desperate to make history and secure a landmark denuclearization agreement that he’d accept virtually any conditions.
Rejecting a sub-optimal deal — and perhaps kissing goodbye a Nobel Peace Prize — under intense pressure and global scrutiny, some say, will put Mr. Trump and his aides in a stronger position in the negotiations to come.
Even the president’s harshest political critics in Washington were forced Thursday to praise his handling of the meeting, which ended abruptly with no deal after the U.S. side said North Korean leaders demanded full relief from economic sanctions without fully abandoning their nuclear program. While lawmakers and regional analysts stressed that the next few months are crucial — and that Mr. Trump must go to great lengths to not inflame tensions and to ensure the negotiating process continues — few argued that the president’s gut instinct had served the nation well.
“President Trump did the right thing by walking away and not cutting a poor deal for the sake of a photo op,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, one of Mr. Trump’s chief critics, said Thursday on the chamber floor.
Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, had penned a New York Times op-ed on the eve of the Hanoi summit all but predicting that Mr. Trump was poised to “cave again” to Mr. Kim in his eagerness for a deal. Faced with an “unacceptable” offer from Mr. Kim, Ms. Rice told NPR Thursday, “I think the president made the right call.”
Other Democrats suggested that they had feared the president would possibly sign a deal that would have allowed North Korea to keep its nuclear program in some form.
“I was relieved that we walked away,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who ran against Mr. Trump in the 2016 election as his party’s vice presidential nominee.
Mr. Trump left Hanoi Thursday after the two sides canceled a planned lunch and signing ceremony, a highly anticipated event where the president and Mr. Kim were expected to sign a deal to end North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief and outside economic investment. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim had expressed optimism just a day before that such an agreement was not only possible but likely.
While the two countries told differing stories after the meeting ended — North Korean officials said they were seeking only partial sanctions relief — there was widespread agreement in Washington that, however Mr. Trump had arrived at the Hanoi crossroads, he appeared to have made the right call in crunch time.
“Trump correctly emphasized principles and longtime allies over a premature peace declaration and his newfound relationship with Kim Jong Un,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and the former CIA Korea deputy division chief.
Sue Mi Terry and Lisa Collins, Korea experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a joint analysis the Hanoi meeting had to be seen as a failure in the two leaders’ inability to move beyond the generalities on denuclearization of the first Kim-Trump summit in Singapore eight months ago.
“But, then again, deciding against a deal at this time is better than accepting a bad deal,” they noted.
The White House on Thursday said that negotiations with North Korea will continue, although no schedule was offered. Lawmakers and analysts said renewed talks are vital and argued that Mr. Trump’s firm stance in Hanoi gives the U.S. a stronger hand in the future.
“The administration was clear-eyed in their pursuit of diplomacy by remaining cautiously optimistic yet remembering the mistakes of past administrations,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mr. McCaul evoked President Reagan’s tough line with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during a 1986 meeting in Iceland, in which Gorbachev demanded that the talks be expanded to include America’s “Star Wars” initiative. Reagan refused and canceled the rest of the meeting.
“President Reagan took that approach with the Soviets at Reykjavik and in the long term that decision was instrumental to accomplishing our strategic goals and ending the Cold War,” Mr. McCaul said.
The path forward
By leaving Hanoi without a deal, Mr. Trump has left the future of U.S.-North Korea nuclear negotiations murky. Some hard-line Republicans seemed to raise the idea that military action could be on the horizon.
“We must not go back to the status quo. If negotiations fail, it would be time to end the nuclear threat from North Korea — one way or the other,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
Other lawmakers were much more measured and appealed to Pyongyang to reconsider its demands.
But a host of regional analysts believe the greater burden now lies with Mr. Trump, not Mr. Kim. They argued that the president could capitalize on the post-Hanoi dynamic by pushing for continued negotiations and making clear to North Korea what the U.S. will and will not accept.
Or, they fear, he could revert back to the aggressive posture he took earlier in his presidency, such as his dubbing of Mr. Kim as “Rocket Man” and threatening to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea.
“Denuclearization of the peninsula and the establishment of durable peace can only be achieved through serious sustained diplomacy,” said Thomas Countryman, former acting undersecretary of state for arms control and now chairman of the board at the Arms Control Association.
“For any progress to happen, President Trump must avoid swerving back to his dangerous ‘fire and fury’ language and brinkmanship of 2017,” he said.
Regional analysts warned that Mr. Trump’s advisers and political allies must implore him to work toward a deal, not view the outcome in Hanoi as a personal insult and respond in kind.
“Given Trump’s proclivity to revert to attack mode as well as possibly trying to divert from his political problems at home, we need be concerned and watchful that ‘Little Rocket Man’ insults and ‘fire and fury’ threats may not be far behind,” said Bruce Jentleson, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke University.
Mr. Trump’s public posture, however, is just one part of the equation. Specialists believe that the president’s handling of the meeting offers his deputies, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea special envoy Stephen Biegun, an opportunity to reset the ground rules of future talks.
“Washington should emphasize that the negotiating focus must be on denuclearization, upholding U.N. resolutions and U.S. laws against North Korean violations, and defending allies, while resisting the siren call of prematurely declaring peace or lowering sanctions prior to reducing the multi-faceted North Korean threat,” said the Heritage Foundation’s Mr. Klingner.
• Stephen Dinan, Dave Boyer and Lauren Meier contributed to this report.