The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker joined me this morning, 90 minutes after the president’s press conference concluded (at which Philip asked a question). Nothing like immediate reaction from within the room:
HH: Joined now by Philip Rucker of the Washington Post, last seen 90 minutes ago asking President Trump a question about Justin Trudeau at the post-Singapore Summit press conference. Philip, good morning, thanks for joining us. You’ve had a long, long day, I’m sure.
PR: Very long day, Hugh. It’s actually evening here in Singapore. The sun has already fallen, and the President is on his way home. But it’s good to be with you.
HH: Good to be with you. Philip, for the benefit of the audience who wasn’t on the ground with you, we’ve watched the press conference. I’ve played the statement. I’ve read the communique. Give us a sense of how the day unfolded for Philip Rucker, and thus, for every reporter.
PR: Well, it was a remarkable day, really extraordinary. It started here in Singapore about 9am, and the President and Kim Jong Un in a very sort of carefully staged and choreographed moment shook hands for the first time. That was the snapshot of history. They stood before American and North Korean flags that were arrayed equally behind them on a huge red carpet. They shook hands for 13 seconds, the President, as he often does with other dignitaries, seemed to be warm, patted him on the back, rubbed his arm a little bit, and then led him into a private room. And together, they sat there for about an hour getting to know each other, talking with only their interpreters present. And from there, it went into a number of other sessions. There was a bilateral meeting at which Secretary of State Pompeo, John Bolton, the national security advisor, joined the table. There was a lunch, really interesting menu on that lunch. And then they took a stroll, Kim and Trump together took a stroll around the property. Trump even showed him to peer inside the beast, which is the armored Cadillac limousine that the president rides in, so Kim Jong Un could take a look at what that looks like. And finally, they had their signing ceremony where they put their names to this communique pledging cooperation. And Kim Jung Un departed Singapore en route back home to Pyongyang. And President Trump held court at his news conference for more than an hour taking a ton of questions, including one from me.
HH: And I’ll come to that in a second. What was on the menu, Philip?
PR: Well, it was, there were a number of things on the menu. Most interestingly, I think, there was ice cream. There was also a short ribs entrée and other dishes. Some were Korean dishes, some were more traditional American dishes. And then of course, there was the influence of Singapore.
HH: And Philip Rucker, how long did they spend inside the Beast? I find that fascinating. The dictator probably wants two of them when he gets home.
PR: Yeah. He’s going to be jealous. They actually did not get inside the Beast together. Trump just sort of on this stroll, they went past the driveway where the Beast was parked. And Trump showed him the car, and a Secret Service agent actually held open the doors that Kim could peer inside the backseat and see how it was appointed and what it looked like. But it did not appear that the North Korean leader actually sat inside the car, and they certainly didn’t drive anywhere together.
HH: Now Philip Rucker, I don’t want to refer to the North Korean press, because they’re not really press. They are a propaganda arm, Goebbels-like in their role. They’re just there…
PR: That’s exactly right.
HH: And I feel bad for them, because if they get a bad shot, they’re dead, right? They’re going off the camp. But what were they like? How many of them were there? And what did they, did they mimic you? Did they do what our free press does?
PR: Well, I have to tell you, Hugh, I was not in the press pool with them, meaning I was not part of the very small member of American journalists that traveled up close with the President. I was with the President in Singapore, but not in the room for some of those encounters with the North Koreans. But what I saw from the footage and what I’ve heard from my colleagues who were in that room in that select pool, they were, you know, acted like normal reporters. They were sort of there and present taking photos, recording it for video, which surely will be used in propaganda pieces back home. I have a question as to whether any of this was aired live back in North Korea.
HH: Good question.
PR: I suspect not. Yeah, it very infrequently do they ever show live events. Those are usually edited and packaged in just the right way to promote the government’s interests.
HH: Now Philip, this goes to the President and the presser. I watched it start to finish and noted that he was unusually gracious towards members of the media.
PR: He was.
HH: And I mean Acosta and you and John Roberts, and people with whom he’s had sparky relationships and good relationships. He was just very complimentary. Eliana, I mean, everybody, so what do you, am I imagining that? Or was that real?
PR: That was very real. He never once, I don’t think, used the term fake media. He even remarked at one point in the press conference that he was being unusually gracious to us. You know, I think he had a little pep in his step. He felt like this was a really big day for him, and he made history with that photo op. I think he felt very good about what happened. I don’t think he’s yet had a chance to absorb some of the criticism out there about the lack of sort of substance towards denuclearization in the communique that was agreed to. And so he just felt really good. He was buoyant, almost, joyful at times, and he stayed up at that podium taking questions for a long period of time. You know, we’re used to these news conferences where he’ll appear with a foreign leader and only take two questions from American reporters and two from foreign reporters. We’ve not had a full-fledged news conference like he did today in quite some time. This was highly unusual. I was sitting in the third row right behind Secretary of State Pompeo and Chief of Staff John Kelly, and they seemed to be sort of fidgeting as the press conference wore on, wondering why the President wasn’t wrapping up. At one point, they sort of gestured over to Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, just to indicate okay, time to end this, let’s get on the road here and head back home to Washington. But the President wanted to keep taking questions, and he did for more than an hour.
HH: Philip Rucker, in the immediate aftermath of an event, reporters turn to each other and they say what’s on their mind. Before they are yet impacted by the, you know, scrum, what did you say to your colleagues on left and right? What’s your assessment after that presser broke?
PR: Well, my assessment was just wow, this is wild. And it was just such a day. And one thing, I don’t know if you caught this, Hugh, from your vantage point, but the press conference actually began with the playing of a promotional video. It was really a propaganda-style video that Trump had commissioned by an American production company. But it played first in Korean, and then it played in English. And it was a lot of propaganda-style images of North Korea, of Kim Jong Un, of Donald Trump, and really tried to present an imaginary world where North Korea is prosperous and free. And Trump told us at the press conference that he had shared that video. He had it made for Kim Jong Un. He shared it with Kim on an iPad during one of their meetings. Kim liked it so much, Trump liked it so much that he wanted to play it for the reporters at the press conference.
HH: I did not see it. I have, I’ve been over the press conference, saw every word, but didn’t see that part. Let me play for you the three grabs, Philip Rucker, and then get your reaction. Cut number 10 on inspections.
DT: We talked about the guarantees, and we talked about unwavering commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This is the document that we just signed.
MG: Did you discuss with Chairman Kim methods to verify either with the United States or international organizations that very process?
DT: Yes, we did. Yes, we did.
MG: And do you have a time table in mind?
DT: And we’ll be verifying, yeah.
MG: Will you leave that to others?
DT: We’ll be verifying. It’ll be verified.
MG: How is that going to be achieved, Mr. President?
DT: Well, it’s going to be achieved by having a lot of people there. And as we develop a certain trust, and we think we have done that, Secretary Pompeo…
HH: And then go to cut number 11 on what Kim will do when he gets home.
DT: But we signed a very, very comprehensive document, and I believe he’s going to live up to that document. In fact, when he lands, which is going to be shortly, I think that he will start that process right away.
HH: And then Donald Trump in a rare moment of complete candor, cut number 9:
DT: I may be wrong. I mean, I may stand before you in six months and say hey, I was wrong. I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that, but I’ll find some kind of an excuse.
HH: So Philip Rucker, he kind of raised the bar at the press conference above what’s in the statement.
PR: He sure did. And you know, what’s interesting about the press conference is he seemed to you know, every few questions, reveal something a little new about what they talked about. He even at one point said that they had agreed to things beyond what was written in that agreement and signed to. But he seemed to be so loose about sort of what had been agreed to, what hadn’t, what it really meant to completely denuclearize, how is that verifiable? He wasn’t so certain. And it left a lot of people wondering how much he really got out of this deal on behalf of the United States and how much wiggle room he left the North Koreans.
HH: I believe, Philip, it took us seven years after 1994 to learn the North Koreans were cheating. After this summit, one missile launch, one test, the refusal of inspectors, those are all giveaways that they’re cheating. And I think we bring along clarity after this. I don’t, I see forming a consensus in real time that Trump gave away too much. But I actually think what he got was clarity and sort of the opening line to announce conflict if they cheat.
PR: Yeah, that might be right. And he certainly got an expression of goodwill from Kim. Some of the public statements that Kim Jong Un made were about wanting peace, about wanting change for the world, and about changing the posture and relationship with the United States. And in Trump’s mind, that means something. It might not be sort of tangible written down agreements, but he feels like that means something. He said over and over again in the press conference that he feels like he can trust Kim Jong Un. I mean, Kim Jong Un is not somebody that most diplomatic experts would ever say they could trust. But Trump feels like he made a personal connection here by coming all the way to Singapore, by putting Kim on equal footing with the United States, by giving him the legitimacy that his regime has craved for decades. He feels like he’s made progress.
HH: And your question, Philip, about Justin Trudeau revealed that the President gets on Air Force One and he immediately turns on the TV. He said, what, there are about 20 TV’s on Air Force One?
PR: Is that a surprise? Yeah, I had asked him to explain why he, you know, he left the G7 Summit in Canada a few days ago concluding that the Prime Minister of Canada, one of our closest allies, was weak and dishonest, but then has concluded that Kim Jong Un, a notorious dictator, is a talented man. And you know, Trump said look, it’s as simple as I left Canada feeling like we were on friendly terms. I turn on the TV, I see Justin Trudeau giving a news conference where he was critical of the United States and critical of me. And you know, that set me off. And he said Trudeau learned that he shouldn’t criticize like that, and he said the people of Canada are going to end up paying the price in the form of additional tariffs, retaliatory tariffs.
HH: Now my summary is to play these three clips, six, seven and eight.
Godfather (Brando, DeNiro, Pacino) I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse. I’ll make him an offer he don’t refuse. My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
HH: Philip Rucker, is that what happened?
PR: I don’t know. You know, I think time’s going to tell about how successful this ends up being, but you know, Trump certainly got that photo for the history books, and that matters a lot to him.
HH: We will see. Philip Rucker, thanks for joining us from the Singapore Summit of the Washington Post. Thank you, Philip Rucker.
End of interview.