The way President Donald Trump sees it, why go for a solid single when you can swing for a home run?
Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is only the latest example of the president’s go-big strategy. From tax reform to international trade to foreign policy, Trump has pursued a high-risk, high-reward approach that advisers say can help produce results on longstanding problems — and that critics warn could trigger dangerous repercussions all the way from a trade war to global conflict.
Drawn to big moments and bigger headlines, Trump views the North Korea summit as a legacy-maker for him, believing that the combustible combination of his bombast and charm already has led to warmer relations between North and South. As he welcomed home three Americans who had been detained in North Korea, Trump early Thursday used a televised, middle-of-the-night ceremony to play up both his statecraft and stagecraft.
“I think you probably broke the all-time, in history, television rating for three o’clock in the morning,” Trump told reporters on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews.
Trump has also played the disruptor’s role in recent weeks and months by withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, imposing sweeping tariffs on allies and announcing he’s moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians.
It’s all a sharp contrast to his play-it-safe predecessor.
“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” President Barack Obama said of his own foreign policy. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”
Not all of Trump’s attention-grabbing gambits have worked — and the potential risks going forward are daunting.
His push to overturn Obama’s landmark health care law ended in a humiliating defeat for the Republicans. His decision to impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports has left global markets in a state of flux and unnerved some of America’s closest allies about the potential for a trade war. And his withdrawal from the international nuclear agreement with Iran, with strong support from Israel, has escalated tensions in the already volatile region.
Critics say Trump sometimes focuses on bold gestures first — and fallout later.
For now, scoring a diplomatic win with Pyongyang has become Trump’s top focus.
His outside-the-box approach to North Korea — complete with ominous taunts of raining “fire and fury” on the North while belittling its leader as “Little Rocket Man” — alarmed many global capitals and much of Washington’s national security establishment, increasing worries about nuclear war.
But Trump believes it brought Kim to the negotiating table, with a summit between the two men now set for June 12 in Singapore.
Trump told one confidant that he now believes a deal with North Korea, rather than in the Middle East, could be his historic victory. White House officials also believe that a triumph on the Korean Peninsula — something that has eluded the United States for generations — could bolster Trump’s approval ratings, help inoculate him against the investigations swirling around him and maybe even trickle down to help Republicans in this fall’s midterm elections.
While some White House aides characterized Trump’s moves as evidence of bold thinking, there is also concern that he has little sense of the potential repercussions from some of his big moves, believing that if things don’t work out, that he can always just reverse course.
In the early months of his administration, Trump latched on to the belief that he could be the president to bring peace to the Middle East. Fond of the idea of making history, the president told advisers he was driven to accomplish something that his predecessors could not and believed that his negotiating skills and strong relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could lead to the unprecedented achievement, according to four White House officials and outside advisers.
At one moment last spring, Trump mused in the Oval Office that he wouldn’t even require a second term to settle things in the region, according to two people familiar with the exchange but not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Though he did break with tradition to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the White House plan bogged down and the divide between Israelis and Palestinians seems as intractable as ever, prompting Trump’s attention shift to North Korea. Warned by Obama days after his election that the threat posed by Pyongyang could define his presidency, Trump answered Kim’s threats with bellicose warnings of his own and rallied an international pressure campaign against North Korea.
Some Republicans have suggested his efforts should bring him the Nobel Peace Prize, an idea Trump clearly savored at a recent rally in Michigan when the crowd chanted “Nobel.” Asked about the chatter in the Oval Office this week, Trump said: “I want to get peace. It’s the main thing. We want to get peace. That was a big problem, and I think it’s going to work out well.”
Then he added his catchall caveat: “We’ll see.”
Long before he was president, the onetime New York real estate developer and reality television star often spoke about the benefits of acting boldly. In “The Art of the Deal,” he put it this way: “I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”
Trump appears to have embraced the “Great Man” theory of history, believing that individuals more than circumstances or trends alter the course of events. In his 2016 GOP convention speech, he famously declared “I alone can fix it,” in referencing the nation’s problems.
Trump and his team also believe that his bold tactics have the added benefit for Trump of overshadowing the threats his administration faces from the ongoing Russia probe and the legal web surrounding his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and porn actress Stormy Daniels.
Rice University presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea is a “high-risk game.”
“But if he pulls off the denuclearization of the North Korean Peninsula, it will be the landmark achievement,” said Brinkley. “It’s Trump’s big going-to-China moment.”