It was quite a sight on the Thursday editions of CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront and MSNBC’s Hardball as liberal journalists heaped effusive praise on President Trump for his “remarkable,” “significant,” and “stunning” willingness to meet soon with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. All the while, each network’s former Obama administration officials experienced weapons-grade meltdowns.
Since this site is dedicated to the media, let’s go first to the journalists. CNN’s Erin Burnett led the way, seemingly flabbergasted after the announcement as she told viewers “[t]hat was a stunning statement” by the South Korean national security adviser.
“That is an incredible thing and I don't think there’s anybody watching this or any expert on Korea who expected that response at this time, pretty stunning,” she added.
Before a commercial break at 7:35 p.m Eastern, Burnett offered this jaw-dropping quote of praise for the President: “Just an extraordinary evening and, of course, opening the door to the big question: If President Trump can truly solve this problem, that would be going down as a great President and there’s no way around that. That is the reality here.”
Global affairs correspondent Elise Labott suggested that it was “good for [Trump] for lowering the temperature” with North Korea as evidence that his “maximum pressure campaign” worked.
Later, she went further:
I think you have to trust but verify and the U.S. is not going to just give away everything. President Trump does have good advisers around him. I think it is a different moment. I think it's significant. I think President Trump, as we have said, does deserve credit for this maximum pressure campaign working, but I think you need to be skeptical about what the North Koreans are going to do.
Over on MSNBC, nuclear arms expert Joe Cirincione told Chris Matthews that “[t]his is actually a moment that very few of us thought we would ever see” and one in which the United States has conceded nothing besides a willingness to speak with the North Koreans.
Chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson spoke from just outside the West Wing driveway to tell Matthews that, from her perspective, “it is certainly a remarkable evening here at the White House...that’s for sure.”
“[T]his a big deal. This is something that President Trump, he has had very harsh words for — for North Korea and for Kim Jong-un...But since they've kind of had this cooling off period with the Olympics, he has expressed that he is willing to kind of work with the North Koreans,” Reuters correspondent Ayehsa Rascoe later exclaimed.
Meanwhile, the former Obama officials were beside themselves. While not a direct Obama official, CNN’s Phil Mudd couldn’t help but take a swing at Trump, telling Burnett to “count me as a skeptic” and downplayed the North Korean concessions.
Former Kerry State Department spokesman John Kirby sought to place almost all the credit on the South Koreans, emphasizing that “it's not about President Trump, it's about Moon Jae-in.”
Speaking of Kim Jong-un, Kirby tamped down expectations since Kim “has more credibility at negotiating table now because he has more capable militarily and he’s not going to give that up anytime soon and so he knows he’s going into this with a bit of an upper hand.”
Obama-era National Security Council member Sam Vinograd suffered the biggest meltdown, whining that they “would spend months preparing for the most basic meetings that President Obama used to have.” Therefore, she claimed “[t]here is no way that President Trump can be ready by May to have a high-stakes negotiation on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.”
“It’s just impossible....You can't wing it. Kim Jong-un is going to be fully prepared. I think that he's playing to the President's ego and the President’s weaknesses by flattering him...If President Trump does meet with Kim Jong-un, he's going to be going in unprepared and he’s going to be giving to Kim what Kim wants, which is a positive photo op,” she added.
Going quickly to MSNBC, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas bitterly warned that no one should “get overly enthusiastic” even though many “are excited now.”
“But we have to maintain the pressure. Because remember what got them to the table, the sanctions and unfortunately probably some of the bluster coming out of the White House,” Farkas lamented, admitting that the President’s tough talk and sanctions may have worked.
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the White House's denial that the President had received a letter from Kim Jong-un but instead a verbal message dictated to him by South Korean officials. This stands in contrast to what CNN (among others) had previously reported.
To see the relevant transcript from CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront on March 8, click “expand.”
CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront
March 8, 2018
7:13 p.m. Eastern
ERIN BURNETT: Alright. That was a stunning statement. Let's just start with the most stunning part. That was the national security adviser for South Korea, Chung Eui-yong, and he is saying in his meeting with President Trump — President Trump expressed his eagerness to — I'm sorry Kim Jong-un expressed his eagerness to meet President Trump as soon possible. And President Trump responding, saying yes — not holding it out there whether he will. He said yes. He will meet Kim Jong-un and he will do so by May. That is an incredible thing and I don't think there’s anybody watching this or any expert on Korea who expected that response at this time, pretty stunning. Also, you heard from the National Security Advisor of South Korea — a lot of flattery from South Korea to the President of the United States and saying that Kim Jong-un reiterating his position that North Korea would refrain from anymore nuclear tests. Okay, There is so much to talk about here.
ELISE LABOTT: Look, President Trump wants to be the leader that no — he wants to do what no other leader has done, right? He wants to meet with Kim Jong-un, get a commitment from the North Korean leader, and you know good for him for lowering the temperature. This maximum pressure campaign as you saw, the South Korean envoy, flattering President Trump, speaking to his, you know, ego a little bit — well, some would say ego, and saying, look, your leadership has brought you to this point. But, you know, these talks that the U.S. would have with North Korea, if President Trump were to sit down with Kim Jong-un tomorrow, what would he say? I mean, there is no — and you talk to U.S. officials, there is no strategy for what they want from North Korea, how would this go, these kind of important summits, while it would be historic, you would want to think the ground work was laid and, you know, he's going to put advisers in a very tough position right now to prepare the ground for these talks. It's historic and it's very significant. Might be a little premature.
SPIDER MARKS: Well, he said he was going to meet him by May which, I mean, I'm blown away here, I’ve got to tell you. I just took my tie and put it back down in front because I was — frankly, totally unprecedented. But I think what is not unprecedented should be our skepticism about how this thing is going to evolve. The President indicated he’ll meet by May, but there are, as Elise pointed out, there will be preconditions. This has to be completely set up so the President doesn't walk in and is totally ambushed and walking away from what ends up being a stillborn outcome. There has to be preconditions. There have to be inspections if there is going to be a freeze on nuclearization in terms of missiles and test. That has to be inspected. We have to be able to verify this is moving in the right direction. So there is a lot of green on that table. That pool table between good intentions and execution.
BURNETT: But Phil, to this point where, you know, General Marks talks about being blown away, I mean to say you could do it and do it by May, I mean, were you also stunned by that?
MARKS: Totally stunned. Absolutely. I was not expecting this announcement to include this.
BRUNETT: Yeah, sorry, Phil.
PHIL MUDD: Yeah, but, let's put a couple of things on the table here. Because count me as a skeptic as well. Look, I don't have any problem with the White House trying to lower the temperature with the North Koreans. This is better than the President tweeting that the head of North Korea is little rocket man. We don't need that. But Bush failed. Clinton failed. Obama failed and let's look at the language that was just used a couple of moments ago at the beginning of this program, Erin. They didn't say they would reverse. That is the South Koreans. They didn't say they had a promise from the North Koreans they would reverse. They said they would refrain from future testing. What did we see in the past year or two? The development of ballistic missile and missile testing, which suggests to me that they already have the capability. If I'm the North Korean, I can deliver missiles and I can deliver nukes, why not cement the progress I’ve made and have the Americans say, that’s okay, let's talk. If I'm the President, I got two questions. What's on the table? And it doesn’t sound to me like denuke. It sounds to me like freeze. And number two, what happens if you fail? I didn't hear either one of those.
BURNETT: Is this actually a great endorsement and a victory for President Trump?
JOHN KIRBY: Yeah, let me tell you something else about the dynamics on the timing her, Erin, it's not about President Trump, it's about Moon Jae-in. Kim Jong-un knows very well that he may never — not another shot like this with as such a liberal President of South Korea. Somebody who is almost tripping over himself to engage and to make something happen and the other thing we have to think of is it’s not just Kim Jong-un here being cowed by Donald Trump. Yes, I think Will’s right that the sanctions are biting, certainly he's a little bit concerned by the military uncertainty. Sanctions. But so too are our allies in south Korea. President Trump has rattled them. So when we talk about what's bringing this about and timing behind it. It, almost as much to do with the tensions and feelings and fear south of the DMZ as it does with the uncertainty to the North.
BURNETT: But is all of that, Admiral, about Donald Trump?
KIRBY: Yeah, I do think —
BURNETT: He's the guy who’s created — I mean, is this a different moment on every single level than it was with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, right? President after President who failed? Is this different and is it different because of one person Donald Trump?
KIRBY: It does — it certainly does feel like a different moment for me. I don't think that you can look at tonight’s development and not say that it is and I do think President Trump deserves some of the credit here because the sanctions that he put in place and the international pressure is starting to have affect, because he has created uncertainty in the minds of both the south and north about what he might do militarily, yes he gets credit for that but two other things are really important, Erin. One, Kim is not his father. He has more credibility at negotiating table now because he has more capable militarily and he’s not going to give that up anytime soon and so he knows he’s going into this with a bit of an upper hand. Number two is Moon Jae-in as we just talked about Moon Jae-in is the other factor here that we haven't discussed. It's because he wants to engage so much, Kim knows that, Kim’s taking advantage of that, and he, to some degree he's running the table here.
BURNETT: Alright and let's me go back to team of experts. Sam, back to you, you obviously were part of whatever conversations, intermediaries there were with President Obama. Does this feel different with you with this extraordinary development of a meeting between Trump and Kim.
SAM VINOGRAD: It does. But it doesn't mean we should rush into a nuclear summit. Erin, we would spend months preparing for the most basic meetings that President Obama used to have. Talk to your intelligence community, talk to your diplomats. There is no way that President Trump can be ready by May to have a high-stakes negotiation on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. It’s just impossible. So we’re looking at scenario now where the President perhaps because he wants a PR opportunity, perhaps because he's desperate to do a deal is going to be rushing into a nuclear negotiation and guess what? You can't wing it. Kim Jong-un is going to be fully prepared. I think that he's playing to the President's ego and the President’s weaknesses by flattering him and by inviting had into Pyongyang . But this is major concession. If President Trump does meet with Kim Jong-un, he's going to be going in unprepared and he’s going to be giving to Kim what Kim wants, which is a positive photo op.
LABOTT: Could it be a photo op? Yes. Could it be a start of something? A warming of tensions? It's been pretty tense on the Korean Peninsula. I do think this is different. I agree with Will Ripley entirely that Kim Jong-un sees that President Trump might be, you know, the most favorable deal he's going to get and if he's going to do something, he might as well try and do it now. I think you have to trust but verify and the U.S. is not going to just giveaway everything. President Trump does have good advisers around him. I think it is a different moment. I think it's significant. I think President Trump, as we have said, does deserve credit for this maximum pressure campaign working, but I think you need to be skeptical about what the North Koreans are going to do.
BURNETT: Just an extraordinary evening and, of course, opening the door to the big question: If President Trump can truly solve this problem, that would be going down as a great President and there’s no way around that. That is the reality here.
To see the relevant transcript from MSNBC’s Hardball on March 8, click “expand.”
March 8, 2018
7:14 p.m. Eastern
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Joe, it seems a bit dramatic statement they're talking about. Kim Jong-un is actually talking about total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. That just means — that means not just stopping testing, stopping development but stopping his program in its tracks. What do you make of that suggestion?
JOE CIRINCIONE: This is actually moment that very few of us thought we would ever see, the North Koreans agreeing to put denuclearization on the table, agreeing to talks with the South Koreans, inviting the President of the United States to have the talks, agreeing to suspend their nuclear missile tests while they're doing it in exchange for what? In exchange for nothing. The deal that we’ve — people have been working on is a freeze for freeze — a freeze on our exercises. But you just heard the South Korean national security adviser say that they understand that the U.S./South Korean exercises will go on, will — these are major irritants to the North Koreans but they're apparently willing to swallow this. So we’re seeing a lot of carrots put on the table on the North Korean side. Will we ever get to the eat the carrots? We don't know. But this is definitely an initiative worth pursuing. The talks themselves while they go on will freeze the program. That is a major national security achievement.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Evelyn on this —
CIRINCIONE: The South Koreans are giving credit to President Trump and that's a good thing to do.
MATTHEWS: Evelyn Farkas, it seems we learned at the end of the Cold War the degree to which the cold war rivals the eastern block like Honecker in East Germany. What they really wanted was recognition by the west, they wanted to be able to go to the white House and be received with honors. Could it be would Kim Jong-un really wants the respect and the prestige from sitting across the table against the greatest leader in the world, the President of the United States? Could that be the carrot?
EVELYN FARKAS: Chris, he definitely wants respect. There is no question about that. But I would caution everyone not to get overly enthusiastic. I think we are excited now because again, in the contrast between this negotiating and fire and fury, you know, military action which is what we were hearing out of the White House is scary and so we're happy that we have engagement. But if you remember what Vice President Pence said coming back from the Olympics. He said we're going to look at engagement and maximum pressure. And I think it's really important to remember, I mentioned earlier, twice before we've been here with the North Koreans where they offered to freeze their nuclear weapons programs, right? And twice before, we actually let up on our sanctions and the negotiations fell part. The North Koreans pocketed what we gave them, the assistance and various other things and they left the negotiating table. So I really believe that while we should absolutely go forward and we should pocket the concessions we can get from them, and we should negotiate in good faith, but we needed to keep the pressure on.
MATTHEWS: I understand.
FARKAS: We can't agree we're going to take the pressure off because, otherwise, it’s —
MATTHEWS: But Evelyn, this time — this time we're not putting coal up, we’re not giving them coal like the last time. We're not giving them stuff like the previous presidents have.
FARKAS: Right. We're not taking them off the terrorism — the state-sponsored terrorism list, right?
MATTHEWS: I agree. What have we got to lose by talking at this point?
FARKAS: Nothing. We have to talk and I agree with Joe that you know, we buy time. We buy time and if what they really will be satisfied with is respect and normalization, great, we can give that to them. But we have to maintain the pressure. Because remember what got them to the table, the sanctions and unfortunately probably some of the bluster coming out of the White House.
MATTHEWS: Hallie, we're already talking about place, location —
HALLIE JACKSON: Yeah.
MATTHEWS: — where they're going to meet by May, if it's by May, can you imagine President Trump heading all the way over to this guy so he can have a home court advantage in Pyongyang along the 38th Parallel? Is that what they're talking about? Something where he’s actually at home, greeting us? Our President goes to him?
JACKSON: I wish I could give you more information on that, Chris. Right now, it is as much a question mark here in Washington, D.C. as it is there in South Korea in Seoul where Kelly Cobiella is as she just talked about. I will tell you that during the discussion, during the announcement and the briefing, you could call it from the South Korean national security adviser, a number of White House aides were standing just behind where the row of reporters was here including Sarah Sanders, including top NSC officials, including top officials from, example, the Vice President's office like his chief of staff and right as the — the session ended, we tried to get some answers. Nothing yet although I expect that at some point tonight, the White House will frankly, Chris, have to answer some of these questions at least preliminarily about where this is going to happen. By May leaves very little time. We're already in March here, Chris. So for discussions this monumental, you're looking at a pretty tight time frame. I can pretty much guarantee over at the Executive Office Building behind me, you have National Security Council staffers who work on this issue scrambling to start getting prepared for this or to continue getting ready for these an apparent discussions that are going to happen. So, I think, at this point, more questions than answers and I have to remind you that all of this of very unexpected, at least for the timing of this and the timing of this announcement tonight. This was not — I just can't emphasize this was not preplanned. It's not as if it was a rollout on a new policy announcementas it relates to North Korea. This all came up just in the last few hours that this was going to be announced tonight. Now, I think back to what the President said just six days or five days ago at that Gridiron Dinner here in Washington where he said he would be of course, open to talks if in fact, North Korea committed to the potential for denuclearization, abandoning its nuclear weapons program and it seems like that's where we are. I do think South Korea is going to be the intermediary here, going to continue to be the intermediary here as they have been. But it is certainly a remarkable evening here at the White House, Chris, that's for sure.
AYESHA RASCOE: Yeah. I mean, this is — this a big deal. This is something that President Trump, he has had very harsh words for — for North Korea and for Kim Jong-un and he said, you know, called him Rocketman and all those things and threatening fire and fury. But since they've kind of had this cooling off period with the Olympics, he has expressed that he is willing to kind of work with the North Koreans and he said earlier this week he thought they were sincere in saying they wanted to have these talks.
MATTHEWS: Well, here's the question. It's all about the objective facts. We've got to stop them from developing a nuclear program capable of threatening us. That's the bottom line.
MATTHEWS: Well, I thought it was interesting about the nice words because the first thing the national — the national security director of South Korea said was it was the President's leadership, Trump's leadership and his pressure politics that did this. Why would they give all the credit except maybe to flirt or flatter?
RASCOE: I think know the importance of that —
MATTHEWS: With Trump.
RASCOE: — with President Trump and it goes a long way to give him credit and to say look, you were the one who made this possible. And you know, President Trump has said over and over again this should have been dealt with by many presidents and I'm the one who’s going to fix it. So, to give them that — to give him that credit has to carry a lot of weight for him.