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Week In Politics: Scott Pruitt's Work At The EPA, The Korean Summit And Ronny Jackson


All right, so it has been one of the more consequential weeks for President Trump's foreign policy. As we just heard, Trump met with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. And then there were photos of two important handshakes this week. They show progress on a foreign policy issue that has stymied multiple presidents.

Earlier today, the world witnessed a historic handshake between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. And yesterday, the White House released photos of newly minted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clasping hands with Kim Jong Un while Pompeo was still CIA director.

Joining us now to glean the significance of these events are E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Mary Katharine Ham of The Federalist. Thanks to both of you for coming in today.


E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

CHANG: So it's still early days on North Korea, but we're definitely seeing more engagement in that part of the world than we've seen in almost two decades, since Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Un's father in 2000. Has President Trump's brash, combative style of communicating with North Korea been a good thing? What do you think, E.J.? I mean, does Trump deserve some credit here?

DIONNE: Well, if North Korea gives up all its nuclear weapons, I promise I'll say yes to that.

CHANG: (Laughter).

DIONNE: But until...


DIONNE: ...That happens, I think there's no indication that that's where we're going to end up. We don't know yet who is playing whom. There are ways in which both South and North Korea may have pushed Trump into these negotiations. And Kim Jong Un seems more to be the driver of events so far. I'd still like Trump to explain how he could call a dictator who starves his own people very honorable. But yes, it would be nice if Trump surprised us in a good way for a change on this one.

CHANG: Mary Katharine?

HAM: Yeah, I mean, I think he does deserve some credit for his unorthodoxy and unpredictability, changing the calculus in a really intractable problem. Like, the calculus has also changed because this has been several administrations of trying lots of things, none of which have worked. So he has some leeway to do different things and sometimes...

CHANG: Right.

HAM: ...Odd things here. And so I think that's what he's doing. The question with Trump always is, is there a real thought-through strategy behind this? And I think the fact that Pompeo is involved and is a guy who is unlikely to be sort of charmed by fool's gold from North Korea points at - in a more promising direction on that front.

CHANG: Well, about that strategy, I mean, in the next several weeks, the president's expected to sit down with Kim Jong Un. But is it too soon for the president to give face time to Kim Jong Un when it's not even clear he is actually ready to give anything up yet in his nuclear program?

HAM: Well, that's the question. You don't want to be clinking glasses with Kim Jong Un and not getting anything in return and legitimizing that. And so that is the question. What is the strategy? But they do have this odd dichotomous strategy right now that is sort of lots of engagement and also lots of bluster and sort of aggressive posture. And the combination does seem to be changing the situation at the very least.

DIONNE: Well, it is - either it is changing the situation, or South and North Koreas - Korea both being petrified about Trump's early sort of bluster has led to a rapprochement between those two sides. And it would obviously be very dangerous to have the president legitimize Kim if he is going to get nothing out of this. So going to your point about Pompeo, you wonder at some point if Pompeo comes back and said, look; we're getting nothing of substance here; maybe we should kick this down the road - and it's going to be a real test of Pompeo as well.

HAM: Well, and the question is whether he listens to him. He seems more likely to listen to him than he was to one Mr. Tillerson, so...

CHANG: All right, well, let's turn to some staff right now in the White House. Let's turn to the story that seems to dominate every week - shakeup around White House appointees. We saw the president's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs drop out after allegations he drank on the job, doled out pills, fostered a hostile work environment. Here's President Trump at the press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel today.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Ronny Jackson - admiral, doctor - is one of the finest men that I've met over the last long period of time - high quality.

CHANG: But it wasn't just Jackson this week. We also saw EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt getting grilled on the Hill over ethics violations and improper spending. Mary Katharine, what is going on with the vetting process inside this administration when it comes to picking nominees and appointees?

HAM: Look; I - there's not enough of one if there is one. And so many things are driven by impulse from the top, from Trump. He likes Admiral Jackson, and so that was his thought for VA. And that's sort of the beginning and the end of it. But you do run into these problems.

I do want to put in a word for Admiral Jackson, who has a long career and has served three administrations with glowing reviews. So I'm open to evidence about him, but I also think he was sort of put out on a limb here, which is, you know - they do a disservice to their own nominees when they don't vet beforehand and put them in these positions.

CHANG: Sure. E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, you can want a more active government, or you can want a smaller government. But you ought to want a government that works, that is competent. And if you take government seriously, you don't throw nominees out the way Trump has with little or no vetting. This should not have happened. And I think it does show a kind of indifference - and that may be charitable - and indifference on Trump's part to the hard work of making government operate properly.

And, you know, Jackson, who seems in some ways like a very nice guy from all reports - he may have - may or may not have these other problems. But he was totally unprepared by his background to run one of the biggest agencies in the country.

CHANG: But is vetting the only problem here - because let's look at some of the other casualties. We got former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. E.J., is there something inherently dangerous about being pulled into Trump's orbit?

DIONNE: I should just say yes and end there.

CHANG: (Laughter).

DIONNE: It's clearly the case. I mean, the the list of people who have left is staggering compared to any other administration, and a lot of the people who leave leave with their reputations much diminished from where they were before, which I think is dangerous for the country, putting aside what you think of Trump, 'cause it's going to be very hard for Trump to attract people to government - good people to government 'cause they don't want to be soiled by the very process you describe really well.

CHANG: What do you think, Mary Katharine? Will you get soiled if you enter Trump's orbit?

HAM: I think it is a hard place to - the White House is a hard place to work at any time. He is an especially hard person to work for in that environment. Throughout his career, his management style has been one to sort of pit people against each other and to make people feel unsure of what their status is. And you see that play out every day. Everything is a fight, and every fight is public. And so I don't think it's going to change, but it does lead to these problems and will continue to.

CHANG: All right, that's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Mary Katharine Ham of The Federalist. Thanks to both of you so much.

HAM: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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