It is difficult to believe this needs to be said, but the United States was not about to go to war with North Korea in the final days of Barack Obama’s presidency.
While most Americans are well-aware of this fact, Donald Trump made rewriting very recent history his first priority on Wednesday as he returned to Washington from a summit meeting in Singapore with North Korea’s hereditary dictator, Kim Jong-un, and fired off a series of tweets.
Shortly after Air Force One landed, Trump tweeted that the declaration signed by Kim, reaffirming a vague commitment made 25 years ago by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” meant that Americans were “much safer than the day I took office.”
Just landed - a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
There is no doubt that the world is a safer place now that Trump has decided to stop threatening to “totally destroy North Korea” and pursue an arms control agreement instead. But his claim that the mission was already accomplished in Singapore is like spiking the football when you are still 90 yards from the end zone, as journalists like Mathieu von Rohr of Der Spiegel observed.
As the day wore on, and observers questioned the president’s claim that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” Trump upped the ante by claiming in a subsequent tweet that before he took office, Americans “were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea.”
Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea. President Obama said that North Korea was our biggest and most dangerous problem. No longer - sleep well tonight!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
In fact, the widespread fear over possible war with North Korea began just 10 months ago, after Trump took office and unleashed a stream of belligerent rhetoric, taunting Kim and threatening a preemptive nuclear attack.
Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn't mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2017
Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me "old," when I would NEVER call him "short and fat?" Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend - and maybe someday that will happen!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
Fears spiked in January when Victor Cha, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, revealed in a Washington Post opinion piece that the White House was seriously considering a military strike on North Korea — a risky plan intended to give Kim’s regime “a bloody nose.”
As Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, observed, Trump’s tweet was a blatant effort to mislead the public about which president brought America to the brink of war.
The President’s communications this morning are nuclear gaslighting; he massively escalated a threat, mitigated it somewhat, and is now declaring victory. NK and it’s nukes are real and we still need a strategy. Don’t be fooled. https://t.co/hOTq2hD8l3— Mira Rapp-Hooper (@MiraRappHooper) June 13, 2018
Michael Fuchs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, argued that Trump hardly deserved credit for embracing diplomacy only after he needlessly threatened war.
Please stop talking about how this is better than war. Of course it is. But the “war vs. diplomacy” narrative is Trump’s narrative. In 2016 no one talked of war with NK. Trump then threatened war. Now he doesn’t get credit for diplomacy, which he should have done from the start.— Michael Fuchs (@mikehfuchs) June 12, 2018
Miffed by news coverage that correctly pointed out how premature the president’s celebration of peace in our time seemed to be, Trump later tweeted that reporters for CNN and NBC were “fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea.”
So funny to watch the Fake News, especially NBC and CNN. They are fighting hard to downplay the deal with North Korea. 500 days ago they would have “begged” for this deal-looked like war would break out. Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 13, 2018
At the very start of his term, Trump claimed, those same reporters “would have ‘begged’ for this deal,” because, he claimed, it “looked like war would break out.”
Fox News aided Trump in his attempt to gaslight the American public about who was to blame for tensions with North Korea, and what the president had achieved in Singapore. After the summit, Sean Hannity claimed, repeatedly, that the talks in Singapore meant that the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula” was already underway.
When Hannity incorrectly described the joint declaration with Kim to Trump as an agreement for the “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula,” the president responded, “True, and so without that we could not have had a deal.”
As William Saletan argued in Slate, Trump’s post-summit strategy seems to be based on lying to American voters, with help from Fox, by passing off talks that achieved nothing concrete as a huge breakthrough for peace. “Trump is indeed a skilled salesman, and his presentation of the new U.S.–North Korean denuclearization agreement is a fine sales job,” Saletan wrote. “But the target of that sales job isn’t Kim. It’s you. Trump and Kim are working together to pass off their toothless pact as a milestone. It’s a con, and you’re the mark.”