WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If U.S. President Donald Trump believes his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was “a very great moment in the history of the world,” leaders from his own Republican Party were much more sceptical on Tuesday after the summit.
They widely praised Trump for taking the bold step of sitting down to talk with Kim, but voiced concern about the vagueness of the agreement that resulted and the president’s lavish praise for the North Korean leader.
In much more measured tones than the president’s ebullience about the meeting, Republican lawmakers urged Trump to be vigilant in moving forward.
“It’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that Kim Jong Un is a butcher and he’s a butcher of his own people,” Republican Senator John Kennedy told reporters.
“Trying to reason with someone like that is like trying to hand-feed a shark. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do it, but you’ve got to do it very, very carefully,” he said.
For Trump, with congressional elections approaching in November and Republican majority control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress at stake, the fast-evolving relationship with Kim presents both political opportunity and peril.
While it was difficult to tell immediately whether Trump’s performance in Singapore would influence congressional campaigns already underway, it was clear that Republicans were not fully embracing Trump’s enthusiasm for Kim.
“It is just hard to determine what of concrete nature has occurred,” Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Reuters.
Senator Marco Rubio, who campaigned unsuccessfully against Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, found fault with the president’s praise of Kim, the successor to a dynastic, repressive regime.
Trump in an interview with Voice of America, called the North Korean leader a “funny guy” who “loves his people.”
Rubio replied on Twitter that Kim “is NOT a talented guy. He inherited the family business from his dad & grandfather. He is a total weirdo who would not be elected assistant dog catcher in any democracy.”
Congressional Republicans historically have taken a hard line towards North Korea. Even Trump a few months ago seemed to be on the brink of a military conflict with the Kim regime.
But Washington awoke to Trump praising the North Korean dictator as “talented” and to Trump’s assurance that Kim had agreed to denuclearize, without any details of how that process would be verified by the United States and its allies.
That made many Republicans reluctant to laud the president, and they said the administration should continue to press North Korea until Kim’s sincerity is demonstrated.
“We must always be clear that we are dealing with a brutal regime with a long history of deceit. Only time will tell if North Korea is serious this time, and in the meantime we must continue to apply maximum economic pressure,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, the top Republican in Congress, said in a statement.
Foreign policy can impact midterm elections for Congress, although domestic affairs more typically dominate such contests. Five states hold midterm primary elections on Tuesday.
Democrats said Trump surrendered negotiating leverage by agreeing to cancel war games with South Korea without appearing to extract any concrete guarantees from Kim. And they worried that Trump had handed Kim a propaganda victory.
“It’s clear that Kim Jong Un walked away from Singapore with exactly what he wanted – the pomp, circumstance and prestige of a meeting with the president of the United States – while making no specific commitments in return,” said Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Whether this will result in a verifiable agreement to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, America and the world will wait to find out,” Warner said.
West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who is up for reelection in a state that Trump won convincingly in 2016, raised questions, but said he was encouraged by the summit.
“The traditional way hasn’t worked for many, many years, so this is a non-traditional approach, and I’m very optimistic about it,” he said.
His comments underscored the challenge Trump’s outreach to Kim presents to Democrats, who traditionally favour diplomacy over confrontation. They have been careful to criticise Trump’s process more than his goal, which has left them without a clear political advantage on the issue.
With months of protracted negotiations likely ahead, it was unclear whether Trump’s push on North Korea would boost Republicans’ standing in the midterms.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist in Washington, said Trump’s efforts could persuade uncommitted voters concerned with national security that Trump is trying to make the world safer.
“Meeting with North Korea is not going to hack off independent voters,” O’Connell said. “They’re going to look favourably on it.”
Reporting by Amanda Becker, Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, James Oliphant, and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Mary Milliken and Bill Berkrot