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News Brief: No Deal With North Korea, What We Learned From Michael Cohen


In his books and speeches, President Trump has often promoted the power of walking away from a deal. And that is what he did in Vietnam today, ending a summit early with the leader of North Korea.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had a really - I think a very productive time. We thought, and I thought and Secretary Pompeo felt that it wasn't a good thing to be signing anything.


The president said that because there was supposed to be a signing ceremony, but it was canceled because, in the end, there was nothing to sign. The president spoke with reporters before heading to Air Force One. And essentially, the U.S. says this is the sticking point. The U.S. wants North Korea to give up all its nuclear weapons. And as of now, North Korea doesn't want to do that. President Trump said Kim was willing to close some but not all nuclear sites. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still tried to sound optimistic.


MIKE POMPEO: I'm hopeful that the teams will get back together in the days and weeks ahead and continue to work out. It's a very complex problem.

INSKEEP: To say the least. So what to make of this? NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Hanoi, and NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is in Washington. Gentlemen, good morning.



INSKEEP: Or I should say good afternoon to Anthony Kuhn on the other side of the world. And, Anthony, let's start with you. In a little more detail here, what was it the United States wanted?

KUHN: Well, in - at the very beginning, at the last summit, the U.S. had initially wanted a declaration of all of North Korea's nuclear assets. And then he wanted North Korea to hand them over. This time, its expectations were a little bit lower. It seems like they would have taken a freeze, dismantlement of facilities and then verification. But then things fell apart. At his presser, Trump said that the deal fell apart because North Korea wanted the U.S. to lift sanctions before it dismantled its main nuclear plant at Yongbyon. And Trump said he just had to walk away from that deal. Let's hear what he said.


TRUMP: Basically, they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety, and we couldn't do that. They were willing to de-nuke a large portion of the areas that we wanted, but we couldn't give up all of the sanctions for that.

INSKEEP: Anthony, you're talking about not just what the United States wanted out of North Korea and what North Korea wanted from the United States, but the order in which things would happen, right?

KUHN: Right.

INSKEEP: That's part of the problem?

KUHN: Yeah. This has been the problem all along. Is it North Korea giving up its nukes first, or the U.S. lifting its sanctions first? And, you know, the two sides had been in talks, preparatory talks for the summit for weeks. On the face of it, it just seems incredible that they hadn't resolved this basic question. We don't know whether there was insufficient preparation, miscommunication, bad faith. It's just not clear.

But there was also the issue that the U.S. wanted a bigger concession from North Korea. Yongbyon, of course, is not their only nuclear plant. They have other places where they make fissile material for nuclear bombs, and the U.S. apparently wanted those to be part of the deal too. But Kim Jong Un was not willing to give those up.

MARTIN: But wouldn't - hey, Anthony, it's Rachel - wouldn't they have known that in advance? I mean, as you say, there had been a lower-level team who had been negotiating. Secretary Pompeo had been to North Korea trying to lay the groundwork for this. So how did they not know that this would be Kim Jong Un's going-in position?

KUHN: Yes. Well, you know, it's possible that one side added requirements at the end. There could have been some miscalculation. We just don't know. It'll be interesting to see what comes out of this soon.

INSKEEP: Well, let's get some insight from Scott Horsley on that question because, Scott, we do know that after that first summit, the North Koreans were asked for a lot and would only sign on to this rather vague and very brief communique and that they'd missed a bunch of meeting appointments in the months since then. Were there signs that this was falling apart on the way in?

HORSLEY: Certainly there was skepticism. We heard leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Committee briefing Congress and saying North Korea had done little in a concrete way to show any commitment to denuclearization and skepticism that Kim would ever really want to dismantle a nuclear arsenal that he and his father and grandfather saw as key to the survival of their regime.

On the other side, though, we have heard people within the administration saying there were some signs of progress in the eight months since the Singapore summit and that Kim himself had recommitted to denuclearize in a New Year's speech. So there's still room, as Secretary of State Pompeo says, to move forward from here. The president stressed that the talks ended amicably, that this was not so much a breakdown in negotiations but more of a pause. And Trump also stressed that this is not a return to nuclear brinksmanship.

INSKEEP: Let's listen.


TRUMP: One of the things importantly that Chairman Kim promised me last night is, regardless, he's not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear - not going to do testing. So, you know, I trust him, and I take him at his word. I hope that's true.

INSKEEP: That is not the only time that he's said he trusted Kim Jong Un and takes Kim Jong Un at his word.

HORSLEY: That's right. There was some discussion about the fate of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was held captive in North Korea and released only to die soon after returning home. The president said that Kim was aware of that case but only afterwards that he assured the president he wasn't - didn't direct the mistreatment of Otto Warmbier. And, again, the president said he takes Kim at his word there once again, showing sort of a soft spot for tyrants.

MARTIN: Right. But he says he trusts him. But trust but verify, right? I mean, this is what conservatives and Republicans like to quote Reagan as saying all the time. But they can't verify because they didn't get inspectors allowed into North Korea. So how do they move forward at this point? It's been two summits now. What happens?

HORSLEY: That's the - that's going to be the question when there was no promise of an immediate follow-on summit. But we did hear Secretary of State Pompeo saying hopefully the lower-level teams can go back at it and perhaps work on where they go from here.

INSKEEP: Anthony Kuhn, let's give you the last word in this part of our coverage because there has been this assumption, this belief that North Korea just looks at its interests, perhaps quite rationally, and concludes that the survival of the regime depends on some kind of nuclear deterrent to keep a country like the United States from going after regime change. Is that - from where you sit, does that appear to be still the way the North Koreans see it? They'd like to make some deal. They'd like to be part of the international community. They'd like to get sanctions lifted. But they're just not willing to give up everything.

KUHN: Well, I think it's clear that, you know, for them if they bargain away their nukes, the price has to be right. They have to get what they want. But, you know, a lot of people also argue that economics are a very big part of this. They can't keep going the way they are with the sanctions on them, in that Kim is serious about economic reform.

And this - today's result really left South Korea in the lurch because they were counting on economic engagement moving ahead with a lot of projects which would tie the two countries' economies together. So right now, we really have to see how the North Koreans are going to react to this. Are they going to accuse the U.S. of acting in bad faith? Are they going to say, that's OK - we'll go ahead with more negotiations later? Or are they going to take a more hostile tack?

MARTIN: And Kim Jong Un wins because he is seen on the international stage as being legitimized again.

KUHN: Could be.

INSKEEP: Plenty of photos of Kim Jong Un on an equal footing with President Trump. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been reporting from Hanoi, where the summit took place. NPR's Scott Horsley is here in Washington. Thanks to you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

KUHN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And there is so much more to discuss today because while the president was in Vietnam to talk about North Korea and talk with North Koreans' - the North Korean leader, he also paid some attention to the testimony of his former lawyer, Michael Cohen.


TRUMP: I tried to watch as much as I could. I wasn't able to watch too much because I've been a little bit busy.

MARTIN: Yeah. Cohen was testifying yesterday before the House Oversight Committee.


MICHAEL COHEN: I am ashamed because I know what Mr. Trump is. He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat.

MARTIN: Cohen testified publicly that the president committed a string of acts. Notably, he said the president reimbursed him for hush money that was paid to an adult film star, payments for which Cohen is now going to jail.

INSKEEP: For more now, we're joined by NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas, who's been covering this story for quite some time. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Cohen made a lot of statements about acts that we'd heard about before, I think, if we were following this closely. What did you learn that you didn't know?

LUCAS: Well, you're right. A lot of this is stuff that we had heard before. The big difference here, though, was that Cohen was making these allegations in front of cameras. This was in public. There was one big allegation that Cohen made that was new. He said that Trump knew ahead of time about WikiLeaks' plans to release stolen emails that would damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is a central part of the whole idea of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

COHEN: Right. He says he was in Trump's office in July 2016 when Trump's longtime informal adviser, Roger Stone, called. He says Trump put Stone on speakerphone. Cohen says Stone told them he had just spoken with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and that he said a big email dump would happen in the next few days. A big email dump did happen a few days after Cohen says this call took place. Wikileaks and Stone both deny Cohen's account on this.

There's one other thing that stuck out. Cohen said he knows of illegal activity regarding Trump that he can't discuss because it's part of an ongoing investigation in New York. It's unclear what he was referring to but certainly points to possible legal jeopardy for the president.

INSKEEP: The kind of thing that perhaps lawmakers would ask him about today as he continues his testimony now in private. Now, President Trump in Vietnam was asked one question about Michael Cohen during this press conference about the summit after the summit. And this is what he had to say.


TRUMP: He lied a lot, but it was very interesting because he didn't lie about one thing. He said no collusion with the Russian hoax.

INSKEEP: Is that true? Michael Cohen said there was no collusion between President Trump and Russia?

LUCAS: Cohen said that he knows of no direct evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. He did say, though, that he had his suspicions. He added at one point that he was not in the campaign. He doesn't know all of the conversations that Trump had with people. And he added that there are a lot of dots. They all seem to lead in one direction. But for Democrats, many of whom were hoping for a big revelation on this point from Cohen, they left empty-handed.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how did Republicans on this committee push back?

LUCAS: Republicans went after Cohen's credibility from the very beginning. They called him a liar. They pointed to the fact that he has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, he's pleaded guilty to tax evasion, that this is not a man that can be trusted. You cannot take what Michael Cohen says at face value.

INSKEEP: Here's how Cohen responded to that.


COHEN: I'm responsible for your silliness because I did the same thing that you're doing now for 10 years. I protected Mr. Trump for 10 years.

INSKEEP: And Michael Cohen gets the last word here, I suppose. Ryan Lewis (ph), thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR Justice reporter Ryan Lucas on this dramatic day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "MAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.