News Brief: Pompeo's North Korea Trip, Trump-Abe Meeting

Apr 18, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 8:18 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump suggested yesterday that preparations for his in-person meeting with North Korean dictator are going well. Here he is addressing reporters at his Florida resort.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have had direct talks at very high levels, extremely high levels.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Washington Post is reporting that those direct talks were with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Pompeo reportedly traveled to North Korea late last month to meet with Kim Jong Un in person.

GREENE: And we're joined now by one of the people who broke that story at The Washington Post, reporter Shane Harris. Shane, good morning.

SHANE HARRIS: Good morning.

GREENE: So what do we know about this meeting between Pompeo and North Korea's dictator?

HARRIS: Well. It was quite secret and quite closely held within the administration. Not many people knew about it. But Mike Pompeo went to North Korea over the Easter weekend, where he met with Kim Jong Un. And when he was there, received certain assurances about what the North was willing to negotiate about when Kim Jong Un meets later with President Trump. And importantly, it's at that point when U.S. officials became convinced that North Korea was willing to put the issue of denuclearization on the table, which is just a really significant concession that they would be willing to make. So this was apparently quite a fateful meeting that the two had.

GREENE: So this is, in theory, the Trump ministration not wanting to put the president out there in this meeting if they're not at least convinced that North Korea is willing to at least come some distance and negotiate. And this is kind of setting the table and making sure that they feel confident with the president going into this.

HARRIS: Yeah, I think that's right, David. They don't want Trump to sit down with Kim Jong Un unless they know that Kim Jong Un is really serious about negotiating. And, of course, the whole point from the U.S. perspective about these talks is to suppress or to at least curtail North Korea's nuclear weapons program. And about a week after Pompeo was in North Korea, administration officials began confirming that they had gotten assurances from the North. They didn't say how they got them, but it was becoming clearer to us that the Trump administration would not come out and say we think the North is willing to negotiate on this unless they were pretty darn sure that that was the case, and it appears that they got that assurance from this meeting.

GREENE: Well, isn't this also extraordinary because it was not clear at the time who was actually representing the United States as the top diplomat? I mean, President Trump nominated Pompeo to be secretary of state. In theory, though, Rex Tillerson was supposed to still be in charge of diplomacy, right? Is this unusual?

HARRIS: It's quite unusual and probably would come as a surprise to Rex Tillerson, too. I mean, what you've seen is that Mike Pompeo, although he was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency - usually a very kind of secretive, clandestine role - has been taking on more of the responsibilities of America's chief diplomat. And it's our understanding that part of this outreach to North Korea was done with the idea in mind that eventually, if everything went according to the White House's plan, Pompeo would be transitioning over into the role of secretary of state and would sort of be there to pick it up. But these channels of communication that have been going on so far have all been conducted through intelligence channels, different in the way we've traditionally done things in the past. Mike Pompeo has really been the leader in that.

GREENE: All right. Reporting this morning on Mike Pompeo on Easter weekend visiting with the dictator in North Korea, a story reported by Shane Harris and others at The Washington Post. Shane, thank you.

HARRIS: My pleasure, thanks.

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GREENE: OK. So President Trump is at his private Florida club today meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

KING: That's right. The two leaders are expected to spend the first part of the day on the golf course and then go back to the clubhouse for more formal discussions on trade.

GREENE: And one person covering all of this is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, who joins us from Florida. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So I know these two men are going to be golfing. They golfed last year in Tokyo. But, I mean, there are some pretty weighty issues to deal with, including trade. Japan's prime minister, it sounds like, is not so happy with some of what President Trump has done with these tariffs.

HORSLEY: That's right. Japan has been feeling the squeeze of the steel tariffs that the president imposed not long ago. Those tariffs add 25 percent to the price of steel that is imported from Japan. A lot of other big foreign steel suppliers, including Canada and South Korea, got a reprieve from those tariffs partly as a result of trade talks. And Trump would like to press Japan into some kind of bilateral trade deal. But so far, Tokyo has not been interested in that. Last year, the U.S. had a trade deficit with Japan of about $56 billion.

GREENE: Well, I mean, staying on trade, can you help me understand this? Because I've gotten totally confused the last few days. Here the president further distancing himself last night from some remarks he made recently about maybe rejoining that Trans-Pacific trade partnership. He tweeted now that Japan and South Korea want the U.S. to rejoin but that he doesn't think it's a good idea. And I didn't even think South Korea was part of that deal.

HORSLEY: That's right. The president tweeted that he doesn't like the TPP for the U.S. He says - not for the first time - he thinks bilateral deals are more profitable for this country and its workers. And this would seem to be confirmation that Trump himself was just blowing smoke last week when he told lawmakers and governors from farm states who want him to rejoin the TPP that he might be willing to do so. The president's economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, conceded yesterday that was more about thought than a policy at this point. And it turns out it's not even a thought that this president likes very much.

GREENE: Well, also some mixed messages from the White House got on U.S. sanctions against Russia - more sanctions that they - we were expecting them, but we haven't gotten them yet from - announced by the government.

HORSLEY: That's right. Over the weekend, U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley went on TV to say the U.S. was about to slap new sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its support of the Syrian regime. But on Monday, the White House stepped back and said it was only considering those sanctions, was not ready to impose them. This was another thing that Larry Kudlow, the president's new economic adviser, got asked about at a briefing here in Florida yesterday. And Kudlow suggested it was Ambassador Haley who had misspoken.

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LARRY KUDLOW: She got ahead of the curve. She's done a great job. She's a very effective ambassador. There might have been some momentary confusion about that.

HORSLEY: Now Haley was not about to take the fall for this switcheroo. She said in a statement to Fox News yesterday - with all due respect, I don't get confused. Kudlow then had to apologize, say he was wrong. All this shows just how hard it is to act as a spokesperson for an administration that has trouble holding a consistent policy.

GREENE: Wow, yeah, different members of the administration trying to get on the same page. NPR's Scott Horsley speaking to us from Florida, where the president is meeting with the leader of Japan. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you.

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GREENE: All right. Former first lady Barbara Bush has died. She was 92 years old. She had been suffering from heart problems.

KING: Barbara Bush will go down in history as one of only two women to be the wife of one president and the mother of another. She was known for promoting the importance of family. She and former President George H.W. Bush were married for 73 years.

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BARBARA BUSH: George Bush gave me the greatest life ever any living human could have ever had, truthfully.

GREENE: All right. I want to bring in commentator Cokie Roberts. Hi, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Seventy-three years of marriage.

ROBERTS: Seventy-three years and unbelievably happy. You know, the last time President Bush was in the hospital, you saw pictures of them together holding hands. And their son, George W. Bush, also a president, said, I don't know what dad would do if mom goes first. But his father is apparently being very stalwart.

GREENE: You knew Barbara Bush, right? You sat down for interviews with her. I mean, what do you remember?

ROBERTS: I did. I sat down for interviews with her. I also had her tell me that my hair was a mess.

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GREENE: What do you say to that?

ROBERTS: Well, she was right.

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ROBERTS: But the first time I actually sat down for a formal interview with her - it was in the vice president's house - when her husband was running for president. And I had an assignment from Seventeen magazine to interview her. And Mrs. Dukakis and I got there in the whole intimidating atmosphere of the vice president's house. And she said, what are we doing this for? Seventeen? They can't vote. But I calmed her down, and we had a very pleasant conversation.

The next time I formally interviewed her, as opposed to seeing her at events, particularly her literacy event, it was 1999. And her son was running for president. And it was the first joint interview that she and Laura Bush had done together. And Laura Bush was quite nervous with her very formidable mother-in-law there. But it was very funny when I'd asked something that was controversial. Mrs. Bush senior would say, don't answer that, Laura. That'll just get you in trouble. I'll do the - you know, if anybody's going to get in trouble here, it'll be me.

GREENE: (Laughter) Always wanting to stay in charge, always keeping the mood a little light, I guess.

ROBERTS: That's right. But also being very serious about things that mattered to her. And, of course, the foremost one was literacy. And that program that she started as first lady has become incredibly important in the lives of Americans and people around the world, particularly adult illiterates, where the programs are now in - 160 programs in 12 states, where she really has made a point of making sure that people in America can read and write because, as she put it, otherwise, you can't achieve the American dream.

GREENE: Did she ever talk about being part of such a prominent political family?

ROBERTS: Sure, she did. And she did both publicly and privately. At one point, my colleague Charlie Gibson was with her in Kennebunkport. And some young couple walked by, and she said, I don't know which Bushes those are. And he said, is it hard to have so many people in the family here? And she said, you know, I've never really noticed because I was just so in love with George. All of my attention was focused on him.

GREENE: Wow. All right. Remembering former first lady Barbara Bush with commentator Cokie Roberts. Thank you, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "BLACK SANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.