Trump meets Kim Jong Un in Vietnam, but his eyes are on Michael Cohen in Washington

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FEBRUARY 27, 2019

HANOI, Vietnam – President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met Wednesday for the second time in eight months, kicking off a two-day summit that could determine whether North Korea is serious about giving up its nuclear weapons despite its failure to move toward denuclearization since the last summit.

Even as the two leaders shared grilled sirloin and chocolate cake at a five-star hotel, the high-wattage summit stagecraft was upstaged by a dramatic congressional hearing in Washington, where Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen denounced the president as “a racist” and a “con man” and said he had skirted or violated banking, tax and campaign finance laws.

The explosive testimony clearly rattled the president in Hanoi. He lashed out at Cohen on Twitter, accusing him of doing “bad things unrelated to Trump” and “lying in order to reduce” a three-year prison sentence for crimes that included arranging payments during the 2016 election to silence women who claimed affairs with Trump.

Aides to the president, already nervous that Trump would offer concessions to Kim, acknowledged that Cohen’s harsh testimony and Trump’s reaction to it are additional wild cards in the high-stakes summitry.

Although Kim is the authoritarian ruler of one of the most repressive nations, Trump called him a “good friend” in a tweet and praised him when they met Wednesday.

Trump told reporters before the dinner that he was satisfied with the progress since their first summit in Singapore in June.

“I thought the first summit was a great success, and I think this will hopefully be equal or greater than the first,” Trump said. “We made a lot of progress. And I think the biggest progress was our relationship. It’s really a good one.”

The two leaders issued a vague statement in Singapore calling for denuclearization. But they did not produce a timetable or require any specific actions, and working-level negotiations have largely stalled since then. U.S. intelligence officials say North Korea has continued to produce fissile fuel for nuclear weapons over the last eight months.

The second summit began shortly after 6 p.m. at the elegant Metropole hotel in central Hanoi. Trump and Kim, who have developed a personal chemistry, greeted each other warmly, shaking hands, smiling and posing for photos in front of a display of U.S. and North Korean flags.

In brief remarks, Kim praised Trump’s “courageous decision” to begin a dialogue, and Trump promised to help develop North Korea’s economy if he denuclearizes.

“Your country has tremendous economic potential, unbelievable, unlimited,” Trump said. “I look forward to watching it happen and to helping it to happen, and we will help it to happen.”

In response to a question, Trump signaled that he had not backed away from his demand for full and verifiable denuclearization. He also confirmed reports that a declaration to end the Korean War was under consideration.

When a reporter asked about Cohen’s testimony, the president pursed his lips but did not answer.

Afterward, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders informed the small pool of reporters who had been allowed into the room that they would no longer be allowed access to the next event, a “social dinner,” because their questions during the photo op had apparently upset the participants. Kim was not asked a question.

Two of the six reporters in the pool were eventually allowed into the dinner but those who asked the questions were barred. In a statement, Sanders cited “the sensitive nature of the event” but media organizations cried foul.

“Previous administrations have often intervened to protect press access when foreign leaders have tried to limit coverage of presidential meetings abroad,” said Norman Pearlstine, editor of the Los Angeles Times. “The fact that this White House has done the opposite and excluded members of the press provides another sad example of its failure to uphold the American public’s right to see and be informed about President Trump’s activities.”

While Trump bristled over reporters’ questions, he relished the attention of photographers snapping away before him. He singled out a New York Times photographer, asking him to send his photos to the White House so he could share them with Kim.

The dictator, who does not allow a free press in his country, appeared to laugh.

It was the second time the White House limited access for reporters covering the nuclear summit.

A day earlier, the White House abruptly relocated a media work space it had established in a hotel ballroom to accommodate hundreds of journalists, apparently after the North Korean delegation, which was staying at the same hotel, raised objections.

Trump and Kim were joined at the dinner by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo; Trump’s acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; Kim Yong Chol, a top aide to Kim; North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho; and their interpreters.

Their meetings were due to continue Thursday morning in Hanoi. The White House said that Trump would hold a news conference after his meetings end with Kim, and that he would then leave for Washington.

It’s still unclear whether the two leaders will produce a more substantive agreement than the brief joint statement they issued in Singapore.

U.S. negotiators want detailed commitments from Pyongyang to dismantle at least part of its nuclear weapons facilities, while Kim wants relief from punishing economic sanctions and a declaration to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Trump is likely to determine what, if any, moves to make after meeting with Kim on Thursday.

“It’s all up to him,” the official said, acknowledging that national security adviser John Bolton, a longtime skeptic on North Korea, has in effect been sidelined.

One possible action: The two leaders could announce an agreement to open liaison offices in each other’s capitals, a step aimed at normalizing relations and providing a more traditional platform for the nuclear negotiations.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump held multiple meetings with Vietnamese government officials, enjoying a red-carpet welcome at Hanoi’s historic presidential palace and office of government.

He also announced Vietnamese investment in U.S. aerospace, pointing to the host country’s “thriving” economy as an example of the growth possible for North Korea should it take steps to denuclearize.

In addition to tweeting about Cohen, Trump took a shot at Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has acknowledged misrepresenting his military service during the Vietnam War. Blumenthal had claimed he fought in Vietnam, when he actually served in the Marine Corps Reserve and was not deployed overseas.

Trump resurfaced a favorite nickname, tweeting that he had “now spent more time in Vietnam than Da Nang Dick Blumenthal,” adding, “His war stories of his heroism in Vietnam were a total fraud – he was never even there. We talked about it today with Vietnamese leaders!”

A White House readout of Trump’s meetings with the Vietnamese did not mention them discussing Blumenthal.

Trump never served in uniform and avoided Vietnam by receiving five draft deferments, including one for bone spurs in his heels.

Cohen told the House Oversight Committee that Trump once acknowledged to him that the bone spurs were just an excuse, telling him he avoided Vietnam because he wasn’t “stupid.”

When the U.S. hearings began, administration officials were ending the long day in Hanoi in the hotel bar. Cohen’s testimony played silently on a screen nearby.


Courtesy/Source: LA Times

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