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The Summit Plummet

The Summit Plummet

Always be ready to walk away from the table if you don’t like the deal, US President Donald Trump once wrote. Well, forget about the table — on Thursday morning Trump pulled the plug a full three weeks before even getting into the room with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.


What happened? President Trump’s framed his decision to cancel the planned 12 June summit as a matter of words — he didn’t like it that North Korean officials said some not very #BeBest things about Vice President Pence! — but in reality the collapse had to do with a critical underlying disagreement over definitions.

The prospect of “denuclearization,” which was central to any talks, always meant very different things to Pyongyang (give up weapons slowly, get lots of good stuff along the way) and Washington (give up weapons swiftly, we’ll talk about your benefits afterwards, but maybe you won’t be around long enough to see them.)

That ongoing disagreement — just weeks from the summit — burst into the open in the recent verbal sparring between Pyongyang and Pence (and National Security Adviser John Bolton) which Trump used as the pretext to scuttle the summit.

So what’s next for our two jilted leaders?

The ball is in Pyongyang’s court now, but Kim Jong-un hardly needs to hurry after it. A summit on equal footing with the US president would have been a diplomatic coup for him, sure, but even without that, the threat of US military action against him is already lower, and his relations with South Korea and China much warmer, than they were just weeks ago. Those things are already wins for Kim. So he can afford to play it cool for at bit — but is that really his style?

For Trump, although the foreign policy mandarins see this as a big humiliation, his base will see it as a strong move from a tough negotiator, so there’s little political fallout there. A bigger question is how this plays into his calculus on China. For months, Trump has pulled his punches with Beijing on trade issues, in part because he needed President Xi Jinping’s help to pressure his client Kim Jong-un to the table. But if Trump sees the summit as a lost cause, he could quickly pivot to a more confrontational stance towards China.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

With the transition of power formally beginning now, what can we expect between now and inauguration day?

Well, there's a couple of important deadlines between now and Inauguration Day. The first is the December 14th meeting of the Electoral College, which will make the state certifications official and will make Joe Biden officially president-elect in the eyes of the US government. Another really important date is going to be January 5th, which is when Georgia has its runoff for the two Senate seats that will determine majority control in the Senate. If the Republicans win one of those seats, they'll maintain their majority, although very slim. If the Democrats win both of the seats, they'll have a 50/50 Senate with Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote and slightly more ability to enact Joe Biden's agenda next year. Also, between now and Inauguration Day, we're going to see Joe Biden announce his cabinet and senior staff. Most of whom will probably get confirmed fairly easily early, earlier ... Excuse me, later in January or early in February. And of course, we're going to see what President Trump is going to do next. I think that it's still a little bit up in the air what his post-presidency plans are. He has yet to concede the election. So, anything is possible from him, including a lot of new executive orders that could try to box Biden in and limit his options when it comes to economic policy, foreign policy, and social policy.

What can we expect out of the Biden administration's first 100 days?

Well, the biggest priority of the Biden administration first is going to be to confirm all of their cabinet appointees, and that should be pretty easy at the cabinet head level for the most part, even with a Republican controlled Senate. It's going to be a little more difficult once you get below the cabinet head, because then you're going to start to see some more ideological tests and some more policy concerns be flushed out by Republicans in the Senate. The second thing you're going to see is Biden start to undo as much of the Trump legacy as he can, and his primary vehicle for doing this is going to be executive orders, which is a lot of what president Trump used in order to enact policy. Expect Biden to reenter the Paris Climate Accord on day one and expect him to start undoing things like Trump's immigration orders and perhaps reversing some of his decisions on trade. Yet to be determined is if Congress is going to have fully funded the government for the entire year in December in the lame-duck session, and if they haven't, Biden's going to have to work out a deal probably in March or so to do that.

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