President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping dined at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Fla., in April. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
We forget sometimes that President Trump’s political rhetoric was forged not over years of policymaking or in discussions with experts on foreign policy and domestic issues, but in weekly phone interviews with “Fox and Friends.” Before he declared his candidacy, the real estate developer and TV personality would appear on the program every Monday morning, weighing in on the issues of the day as the hosts offering their now-familiar lack of criticism of his musings.
On April 8, 2013, for example, Trump called in to discuss a variety of subjects: his show, “Celebrity Apprentice,” Wrestlemania — oh, and North Korea.
Host Steve Doocy broached that subject by noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might soon test a nuclear weapon “or do something dopey like that” — but that China might actually be starting to put pressure on the rogue nation.
[As U.S. and South Korea conduct military exercises, North Korea’s leader taunts Trump over ICBM]
“Well, I think China has total control over the situation,” Trump responded. North Korea “wouldn’t exist for a month without China. And I think China, frankly, as you know — and I’ve been saying it for a long time, and people are starting to see that I’m right — China is not our friend.”
He had been saying this for a while, in fact. He tweeted about it in March of that year, saying that, “China could solve this problem easily if they wanted to, but they have no respect for our leaders.” A few weeks later, another tweet: “North Korea can’t survive, or even eat, without the help of China. China could solve this problem with one phone call — they love taunting us!”
China controls North Korea. So now besides cyber hacking us all day, they are using the Norks to taunt us. China is a major threat.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2013
How did “Fox and Friends” reply to Trump’s argument? Well, the conversation quickly transitioned to Trump having been inaugurated into the pro wrestling Hall of Fame.
To be fair, Trump wasn’t a politician then, so there was much less of a reason to demand a hard answer. Of course, there was also little reason to ask his opinion. But this is the crucible in which Trump’s policy on North Korea was formed — and over the course of the presidential campaign, it didn’t evolve much.
During the Republican primary debates last year, Trump’s argument was consistent: North Korea was China’s problem, and China wasn’t dealing with it because they didn’t respect President Barack Obama since Obama wouldn’t strong-arm them. In a January 2016 debate, Trump argued that China was “ripping us on trade” and that the country was “devaluing their currency,” implying that he might use tariffs and a crackdown on that manipulation to bring China to heel on the North Korea issue.
The following month, Trump put the whole issue in China’s lap:
I deal with them. They tell me. They have total, absolute control, practically, of North Korea. They are sucking trillions of dollars out of our country — they’re rebuilding China with the money they take out of our country. I would get on with China, let China solve that problem. They can do it quickly and surgically. That’s what we should do with North Korea.
In a debate the following March, Trump criticized how Obama and other presidents had handled tensions, saying that “every time this maniac from North Korea does anything, we immediately send our ships. We get virtually nothing.” (In April of this year, Trump’s administration said it was sending an armada to North Korea in response to Kim’s saber-rattling, but no ships were actually en route.)
To the New York Times at that time, Trump was explicit in his charge that Obama was impotent on the issue.
China says well we’ll try. I can see them saying, “We’ll try, we’ll try.” And I can see them laughing in the room next door when they’re together. So China should be talking to North Korea. But China’s tweaking us. China’s toying with us. They are when they’re building in the South China Sea. They should not be doing that but they have no respect for our country and they have no respect for our president.
In a speech in April 2016, Trump said that “President Obama watches helplessly as North Korea increases its aggression and expands even further with its nuclear reach. Our president has allowed China to continue its economic assault on American jobs and wealth, refusing to enforce trade rules – or apply the leverage on China necessary to rein in North Korea.”
Once he won the GOP presidential nomination, Trump repeatedly hammered Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on her failure to curtail the North Korea problem when she was the secretary of state. His campaign created a lengthy list of ways in which Clinton had failed, citing news reports of successful nuclear tests and rocket launches a few months into Clinton’s State Department tenure. Despite that, his campaign’s national defense platform included only one mention of North Korea, arguing that the United States should bolster its missile defenses.
During the general-election debates, Trump stuck to the same theme. “China should solve that problem for us,” he said in September 2016. “China should go into North Korea. China is totally powerful as it relates to North Korea.”
When Trump met with Obama during the presidential transition, Obama reportedly warned Trump that North Korea would be the most urgent problem he would face. Trump, during that period, continued to argue that China must address the North Korea threat and that, under his watch, no North Korean weapon could strike the United States.
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
Once he became president, though, Trump’s tone shifted.
In April of this year, with the 100-day mark of his presidency looming, Trump told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo that getting China to fix the problem was not that simple. Describing a conversation with President Xi Jinping of China, Trump said that North Korea was the first thing he brought up. However, Xi “then explain[ed] thousands of years of history with Korea. Not that easy.”
“In other words,” Trump said, “not as simple as people would think.”
Since his inauguration, his tone on Twitter has oscillated between blaming China for North Korea and dismissing China as unnecessary in containing the problem.
North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been "playing" the United States for years. China has done little to help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2017
(He made this point that same month in an interview with the Financial Times, saying that “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”)
China can fix this and needs to. Maybe China can fix this. If China doesn’t fix this, we will. China isn’t fixing this, but can.
The reason for this back-and-forth is obvious: Trump promised that he could put pressure on the Chinese to get them to cut off North Korea, forcing that nation to end its nuclear ambitions. But once Trump took office, that policy proved to be much harder than he’d presented. So, lacking an obvious solution (since none exists), he continues to try to blame China’s policy while explaining why they haven’t been moved to action.
As he’s done so, he’s been put into the uncomfortable position of having to wave away his past promises. On labeling China a currency manipulator, for example, he told “Fox and Friends” in April that he wouldn’t press that issue as long as China was working with us on North Korea.
“[W]hat am I going to do, start a trade war with China in the middle of him working on a bigger problem — frankly — with North Korea?” Trump said to host Ainsley Earhardt. “So I’m dealing with China with great respect. I have great respect for him. We’ll see what he can do. Now maybe he won’t be able to help. That’s possible. I think he’s trying, but maybe he won’t be able to help. And that’s a whole different story. So we’ll see what happens.”
He said as much on Twitter.
To Earhardt, Trump also praised China’s rejection of coal ships from North Korea as evidence that the country was trying to pressure the North Koreans. On Wednesday morning, though, he seemed to claim defeat.
The implication, then, is that Trump will now take the economic actions against China that he once promised.
But, then, he’s already given himself an out on talking about what he intends to do. During a news conference in February, Trump insisted to reporters that, in essence, his plans for North Korea were none of their business.
“I don’t have to tell you. I don’t want to be one of these guys that say, ‘Yes, here’s what we’re going to do.’ I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea,” he said. “I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea. And I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do with Iran. You know why? Because they shouldn’t know. And eventually, you guys are going to get tired of asking that question.”
The president’s current conundrum is two-fold. First, there’s no easy solution. Second, Trump promised that there was one.
Had his policy been crafted by a team other than Fox’s early-morning talk show hosts, that second problem might not exist.