Beating expectations is central to President Trump's political brand. The story of his 2016 campaign is one of an impending collapse that never came, an upset win that he continually relives at rallies and on Twitter.
But beating expectations in a face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be difficult — because Trump has set the bar so high. Though in sober moments he has framed the summit in Singapore this week as a mere introduction to the North Korean leader, the president, ever self-confident, has been unable to mask his apparent belief that his own unique talent as a negotiator could produce a landmark deal — on the spot.
“We could absolutely sign an agreement” to end the Korean War, Trump said at a White House news conference last week.
The president has allowed that convincing Kim to abandon North Korea's nuclear weapons program will require more than a single sit-down. Probably. But maybe not! “I think it's not a one-meeting deal,” Trump said Thursday. “It will be wonderful if it were.”
Managing expectations is one of the oldest games in politics. The idea is to reduce pressure and manufacture a situation in which it is possible to be seen as overachieving.
Trump, however, has invited pressure and left little room to achieve more than what he suggests is realistic. It will be hard to live up to an April tweet in which he declared, “We haven't given up anything & they have agreed to denuclearization,” as if the ultimate deal were already done. In fact, North Korea merely said it would suspend nuclear and missile tests and shut down a key testing site. Kim's move was an encouraging sign, to be sure, but it was not an agreement on “denuclearization.”
Trump boasted Saturday that he will be able to deduce almost immediately whether Kim is serious about the prospect of disarmament.
“I think within the first minute I'll know,” Trump predicted, as he departed a G-7 summit in Canada, bound for Singapore.
“How?” a reporter asked.
“Just my touch, my feel,” Trump replied. “That's what I do. ... I think that very quickly I'll know whether or not something good is going to happen. I also think I'll know whether or not it will happen fast.”
Though some experts on North Korea's nuclear program say that a complete shutdown could take 15 years, Trump has talked repeatedly about a “fast” process.
“I'd like to have it done immediately,” he said on “Fox & Friends” last month, “but, physically, a phase-in may be a little bit necessary. It would have to be a rapid phase-in. But I'd like to see it done at one time.”
Trump has even basked in the notion that he could win a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic effort. “No-bel! No-bel!” supporters chanted at an April rally in Michigan. “Nobel,” the president repeated, laughing and flashing a thumbs-up sign.
“Do you deserve the Nobel Prize?” a reporter asked Trump at the White House last month.
“Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it,” he answered.
Trump's great expectations, however, will be tough to meet and even tougher to surpass.