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This Week In Politics: U.S.-North Korea Relations

Apr 21, 2018
Originally published on April 21, 2018 6:00 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We turn now to Ron Elving, senior editor and correspondent on NPR's Washington Desk. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: President Trump tweeted that this news from North Korea is big progress. Do even those who have criticized the president in both parties for bluster and chaos have to say, well, if North Korea is taking this step and is coming to the table, maybe it's paying off?

ELVING: You know, we may be seeing some payoff here for at least two world leaders. It can be argued that, as you say, the verbal assault by President Trump has actually added pressure on top of the years of sanctions that the United States has imposed here in an effort to bring North Korea to talk about curbing its nukes. And at the same time, that testing site had pretty much already done its job for Kim Jong Un. He's seeing some success for his strategy of accelerating and hyping his nuclear program. That seems to have produced just what he wanted. He's being taken seriously in the world community. He's got a summit with the United States president. And he has a seat at the table of world nuclear powers, at least temporarily.

SIMON: We learned this week that the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, secretly went to North Korea and met with Kim. I guess that reminds us of Henry Kissinger going to China when no one knew about it.

ELVING: Yes. It reminds you and I of that, Scott.

SIMON: (Laughter) And a few others, yes.

ELVING: And here is the man who has been nominated to be the next secretary of state. And here he is, going on a secret mission with the CIA. You know, Kissinger was the national security adviser at the time. He was not yet secretary of state when he made that mission to China. Obviously, it advanced his case. Now, sometimes, these back-channel contacts are best done by someone other than the nation's chief diplomat, who has to travel with a rather large entourage. And on the other hand, we actually haven't had a national chief diplomat for some time since Donald Trump fired Rex Tillerson last month.

SIMON: And Mike Pompeo, despite the high profile that he's getting now of this trip, may not get the stamp of approval from the Senate foreign relations committee, yes?

ELVING: Well, we know that Rand Paul of Kentucky has said he will not back Pompeo. He will not vote for him on committee or on the floor. The president has said he can take care of Rand Paul. He counts on him to come back to his side. But others are not so sure. We do know also that Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota has said she will vote for Mike Pompeo. So there's a Democratic vote that would seem to cancel out Rand Paul if it is a straight-party-line vote in that committee. We don't know that it will be yet.

So it's possible that with another negative vote, Pompeo could go down in committee. And that would usually be the end of a nomination, but this is not obviously a normal case. And in the current atmosphere, it's apparent that the president would insist on a floor vote after the committee's rejection. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems inclined to do that and bring home a successful vote, especially now that Mike Pompeo has become the face of our new Korea policy.

SIMON: Ron, I don't know if you've heard, but James Comey wrote a book.

ELVING: He did.

SIMON: Yeah, he's been on book tour. And it's interesting - congressional Republicans have pressed to have his memos documenting his conversations with President Trump released to Congress. These are the - you know, some of the conversations that he recounts in his best-seller. Do these memos support or undercut, as Republicans hoped, what Mr. Comey says in his book?

ELVING: These are the notes for Jim Comey's book. This is exactly what he wrote his book from - these memos. That's why he kept them at the time so that he would have a contemporaneous record, and he would have a basis for putting his story together. And many of us have spent the last 24 hours scratching our heads about why the House Republicans were so eager to have us all see these notes, these memos. What in them damages Jim Comey other than a corroboration of everything that's in his book? What about them helps the president? What about them helps the House Republicans themselves and explains why they insisted on getting them and then releasing them? Did they not know what was in them? Did they have some notion of something else being in them?

And at this point, we have to wonder if they don't help the case of Rod Rosenstein, who is the deputy attorney general who's been on the hot seat for a couple of weeks now and most likely person to be fired next by Donald Trump. At this point, he seems to be cooperating and giving both House Republicans and the White House Republicans everything they want.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.