WASHINGTON – President Trump told a joke at the Gridiron Club dinner here a few weeks back that, like many jokes, may be rooted in a greater and very serious truth.
"I won't rule out direct talks with Kim Jong Un, I just won't," the president said regarding North Korea's not so dear leader. "As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine."
Now this is not to say that our president is a madman. But after 15 months in office, Trump appears to be piling up evidence that at the very least, sometimes he acts like a madman to get his way.
And in two important venues – in North Korea and in China – it seems like it might be working.
Granted, things didn't go well at the start between Trump and Kim Jong Un. Last August, he warned that threats from the fledgling nuclear power would be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." A month later, he took to calling the diminutive dictator "little rocket man." And this January, Trump famously bragged that his "nuclear button" is bigger than Kim Jong Un's (whatever that means).
Now all of this sounds more like schoolyard trash talk than like deft diplomacy – yet it seems to have brought Kim Jong Un to the bargaining table.
In March, Kim Jong Un proposed direct nuclear talks between North Korea and the U.S. – and Trump agreed. Then Trump sent CIA director Mike Pompeo to the world's most isolated country to lay the groundwork for the talks. And now Kim Jong Un seems so eager to talk to Trump that he's abandoned his demand that American troops leave South Korea.
Coincidence? Perhaps. After all, the U.S. has been ratcheting up its sanctions against North Korea, and Kim Jong Un may just be caving in response to them. So perhaps this is what Kim Jong Un wanted all along, in that it boosts his prestige.
But former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger thinks Trump's rather unconventional approach to North Korea may really be paying off.
“The president has his own original style, and it’s unlikely to be changed at this stage of his life,” Kissinger told The New York Times. “But it also is conducive to bringing forward opportunities like this Korean conversation."
Trump seems to be using similar tough tactics with China.
The president looked like he was starting a trade war when he slapped new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum on March 1, starting an escalating tariff tit-for-tat with China that threatened to raise prices for U.S. consumers.
But then, amid all the pressure, China backtracked early this month, vowing to "significantly lower" the historically high tariffs China imposes on imported American vehicles.
What's more, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to a "100-day plan" for talks that could lead to more trade concessions from the Chinese.
"The 100-day timeframe will probably ... lead China to give the U.S. administration some quick, easy wins such as deals or announcements on airplane and agricultural commodity purchases," Louis Kuijs, head Asia economist at Oxford Economics. told CNN.
Even Trump critics such as Stephen Ezell, vice president of global innovation policy at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, conceded that Trump's tough talk might help him strike such deals.
Trump has "demonstrated a resoluteness, and that signals to China's leaders that we're serious," Ezell told The Associated Press.
Of course, this crazy-like-a-fox thing is nothing new.
Richard Nixon called it "the madman theory" and tried to make the Vietnamese think he was crazy enough to keep bombing them forever if they didn't bend in negotiations.
In fact, the theory that dates back to Niccolo Machiavelli, who wrote: "At times it is a very wise thing to simulate madness."
Now of course, many would argue that Trump isn't simulating, but whether he is or isn't, one thing seems clear.
For America's 45th president, madness may just be part of the art of the deal.
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