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Trump deals himself out of zero-summit game with North Korea

President Donald Trump attends a news conference after

President Donald Trump attends a news conference after his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un broke down abruptly Thursday in Hanoi, Vietnam. Credit: Getty Images/Tuan Mark

It ends with failure to lunch

How do you solve a problem like North Korea? Before he flew to Hanoi, Donald Trump mocked critics and doubters who thought he was counting too much on the "very special relationship" he had forged with Kim Jong Un to win a nuclear disarmament agreement.

"So funny to watch people who have failed for years, they got NOTHING, telling me how to negotiate with North Korea. But thanks anyway!" the president tweeted on Sunday.

How'd that work out? The summit broke down so abruptly Thursday that Trump and Kim never made it to a lunch of foie gras, snowfish and candied ginseng that had been prepared for them to enjoy together at the Metropole hotel.

"Sometimes you have to walk," Trump told a news conference. He said North Korea insisted that all the punishing sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Pyongyang be lifted without the North committing to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. "We couldn't do that," Trump said. After Trump departed, North Korea's foreign affairs minister, Ri Yong-ho, gave a contradictory account, denying that Kim had demanded full sanctions relief in return for dismantling a key nuclear facility.

The outlook for getting negotiations back on track doesn't look promising. A third summit "may not be for a long time," said Trump. Kim may have “lost the will” for discussions, said Ri.

The naysayers on Trump's style of diplomacy — particularly listening to his gut instead of the professionals — said it again. The meeting's meltdown "exposed Trump’s overreliance on personal relationships, and it highlighted his tendency to badly underprepare,” Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Washington Post. Haass added that Trump “weakened his own hand by brimming with optimism."

But there was also relief in Washington that Trump didn't make a terrible agreement to try to win a news cycle or prop up his Nobel Peace Prize fantasies. “President Trump did the right thing by walking away and not cutting a poor deal for the sake of a photo op,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

In thugs he trusts

Kim's regime has few rivals in mass brutality, but Trump told the news conference he believed the dictator's denials of involvement in the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student imprisoned for 18 months and sent home in a coma, showing signs of suspected torture.

"I don't believe that he would have allowed that to happen," Trump said of Kim. The North Korean leader told him that he "didn't know about it," Trump said, adding that he would "take [Kim] at his word."

It's all consistent with Trump's willingness to take the word of autocrats he favors despite their reputations for dastardly deeds. The president waved off intelligence community findings pointing to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's role in the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

He fervently accepted Vladimir Putin's denials of election interference, and said of hit jobs carried out to eliminate Putin's foes: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

Impeach not ripe, says Pelosi

Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated she was no closer after Michael Cohen's testimony to wanting the House to start impeachment proceedings against Trump.

“I’m not going into that, I’m not going into that,” Pelosi said. She said she wanted to see the results of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and the separate probe by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office. "Impeachment is a divisive issue in our country and let us see what the facts are, what the law is and what the behavior is of the president," she told reporters.

But House Democrats are stepping up their own investigations. The House Intelligence Committee intends to call the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, to testify, the Daily Beast reported. Weisselberg is uniquely positioned to address questions about financial transactions or relationships that could point to potential foreign leverage over Trump, the report said.

Janison: Rigging de rigueur

The public heard a lot of Trump complaints about "rigging" in the runup to the 2016 election. As in much else Trump says, there was an element of projection. Cohen's testimony Wednesday bolstered stories of Trump as steeped in the rigging art, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

According to Cohen, Trump wanted a portrait of himself to get the highest bid at a Hamptons art auction, so he had his fixer find a straw bidder. Trump celebrated the winning $60,000 price on Twitter. Then his charitable foundation bought it back to hang at a Trump country club — cost-free to Trump.

Cohen also told of how Trump inflated his worth to improve his ranking among Forbes' lists of the richest. In January, The Wall Street Journal reported on how Trump assigned Cohen to try to manipulate in Trump's favor the results of a 2014 CNBC list of the country's top business leaders.

Position wanted?

Trump family and friends looking to discredit Cohen's testimony seized on his claims that he never wanted a White House job. Two Republican members of the House Oversight Committee asked the Justice Department to investigate whether the fixer-turned-flipper committed perjury.

The reasons for skepticism aren't just partisan. Soon after Trump's election victory in 2016, Cohen told CNN he hadn't been offered a job but "certainly hope" an offer would come. Filings by New York federal prosecutors also asserted that Cohen "privately told friends and colleagues, including in seized text messages, that he expected to be given a prominent role and title in the new administration."

Cohen stuck to his story during the hearing. His lawyer Lanny Davis said Thursday that Cohen "testified truthfully."

Also on Thursday, Cohen testified to a closed session of the House Intelligence Committee focusing on Russia issues and is due back for more on March 6. The panel said it will also have a public hearing March 14 with Felix Sater, the Russian-born businessman who worked with Cohen to push the Trump Tower Moscow project.

Kushner's clearance angel

Contrary to Trump's denials, the president last year ordered his then-chief of staff, John Kelly, to grant his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, a top-secret security clearance, The New York Times reported.

According to the report, Trump overruled concerns flagged by intelligence officials and the White House’s top lawyer at the time, Don McGahn. The order so troubled Kelly and McGahn that they wrote internal memos about it. Among those who objected to the clearance was the CIA, the McGahn note said.

Asked about the contradiction to Trump's story, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “We don’t comment on security clearances.”

Though the full reasons for opposition to the clearance aren't clear, the FBI and CIA had raised questions about Kushner's foreign and business contacts, the report said.

What else is happening:

  • One more GOP defection would clinch Senate approval of a measure to block Trump's national emergency declaration for border wall money. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee won't say whether he'll be the one, but he urged Trump Thursday to find another way to get the funds or face a potential GOP rebellion.
  • Trump's stories of female migrants being bound and gagged with duct tape by traffickers smuggling them across the Mexican border have been met with skepticism, but The New York Times has uncovered some cases. It doesn't happen a lot, but it has occurred, the report said.
  • In his Hanoi news conference, Trump found a silver lining from Cohen's testimony. "He lied a lot," the president said, but "he said no collusion, and I was a little impressed by that, frankly." Cohen said he had no sure evidence of Russia collusion.
  • Trump claimed in an interview with his Fox News fanboy Sean Hannity that the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels were Cohen's doing — not his. "He made the decision," Trump said.
  • Melania Trump will travel to Oklahoma, Washington and Nevada next week to promote her "Be Best" initiative. "Whether it is social media and technology or drug and alcohol abuse, children in our country and around the world are faced with many challenges,” a statement from the first lady said.
  • Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel on Thursday warned Trump's potential GOP primary challengers that while they have a right to run, they will "lose horribly."

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