The first time I listened to the audio, I thought the Journal was right. After listening a few more times, I think Trump’s right.
“I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un,” Mr. Trump said in the Thursday interview. “I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised.”
That quote sparked excited chattering among the media. The president is talking to Kim Jong Un? What do they talk about? Is it mostly nuclear threats and macho chest-beating, or have they bonded over how sweet it is to have power over life and death for millions of people?
It’s neither, said the White House yesterday. It’s fake news.
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) January 13, 2018
Trump himself followed up this morning. Fake news! The fakest!
The Wall Street Journal stated falsely that I said to them “I have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un” (of N. Korea). Obviously I didn’t say that. I said “I’d have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un,” a big difference. Fortunately we now record conversations with reporters…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2018
…and they knew exactly what I said and meant. They just wanted a story. FAKE NEWS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2018
Oh yeah, replied the Journal? Judge for yourself:
We have reviewed the audio from our interview with President Trump, as well as the transcript provided by an external service, and stand by what we reported. Here is audio of the portion the White House disputes. https://t.co/eWcmiHrXJg pic.twitter.com/bx9fGFWaPw
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) January 14, 2018
The White House posted its own version of the audio, although the Journal’s clip is longer and provides key context. I hear him say “I’d,” not “I,” although I think the context make the Journal’s mistake understandable. He’s rattling off the names of Far East leaders with whom he currently has “great relationships” — Xi of China, Abe of Japan — and then suddenly he brings up Kim Jong Un. If you’re not listening very closely for “I’d,” you could easily mishear and think he’s claiming an existing relationship with Kim. In fact, one theory being kicked around by Trump-haters on social media is that he meant to say Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, but his supposedly deteriorating brain brought to mind Kim instead. Moon would make more sense in context, as South Korea’s a key regional ally and Trump would be expected to have a “great relationship” with its leader. But I don’t think he meant to say Moon. I think he was boasting that he gets along so well with foreign leaders that he’d even get along with Kim Jong Un too. Hypothetically.
HuffPost reporter Yashar Ali used a bit of technological sleuthing to try to get to the truth and he hears “I’d” too:
Former oppo researcher in me has been obsessing over this so I reduced the background noise and slowed his voice down to 40 percent and he says “I’d”
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) January 14, 2018
The weird thing about Trump leaping to accuse the Journal of “fake news” is that the paper’s editor, Gerard Baker, has a reputation for being soft on him. He conducted a softball interview with POTUS in early August, then scolded the paper’s news staff later that month to be more evenhanded in its coverage of the president. Journal reporters have groused anonymously to other outlets that they’re unhappy with Baker’s “cautious” treatment of Trump. (Disagreements over how to handle POTUS have also roiled the paper’s opinion section, with at least one editor leaving the paper because of it.) There’s no reason to believe Baker’s news section would deliberately misconstrue something Trump said, but there’s no room for honest errors in the Trump/media war. The White House saw a juicy opportunity to cry “fake news!” — the presidential Dishonest Media Awards are only three days away! — and they went for it.
Trump critics who are desperate to rap him for something here might sidestep the whole I/I’d debate and note that it’s weird for the nominal leader of the free world to suggest he’d have a “great relationship” with the warden-in-chief of a Stalinist gulag state under any circumstances. Fair enough, but the carrot-and-stick game to get North Korea to de-escalate has increasingly become a game of just sticks, with the biggest stick of all increasingly likely to be used. If Trump wants to dangle a small rhetorical carrot about a potential “very good relationship” if Kim calms down, especially with some minor rapprochement between the two Koreas happening right now over the Olympics, what’s the harm in it? It’s a queasy thought that the U.S. would tolerate the Kim dynasty running its gulag indefinitely if the regime really did denuclearize. But it’s also the truth. The “very good relationship” blather is Trump’s way of nudging the bad guys towards dialogue.
Here’s Journal reporter Peter Nicholas discussing his interview with Trump a few nights ago on CNN. He seems to have earnestly believed from the beginning that Trump said “I” rather than “I’d.” One question in parting: After Trump mentioned Kim to Nicholas, Nicholas followed up by asking him point blank if he’d spoken to Kim. Trump’s reply? “I’m not saying I have or haven’t. I just don’t want to comment.” If the president was speaking hypothetically about a relationship with Kim, why not just say that right then and there? Why the coyness about whether they’ve chatted secretly? You can see why Nicholas might have misunderstood him.