WASHINGTON (AP) — Confusion, skepticism and a bit of optimism ricocheted around Capitol Hill on Tuesday as lawmakers tried to figure out what comes next after President Donald Trump’s historic summit with Kim Jong Un over North Korea’s nuclear program.
Republicans and Democrats weren’t quite ready to toast the first meeting of a U.S. president with a North Korean leader. They weren’t sure what, exactly, was accomplished. They worried that Trump gave more than he got. They did concur, though, that the pageantry and images won’t mean much unless the North completely denuclearizes.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the meeting a “major first step” in U.S.-North Korea relations, but not a decisive one if North Korea does not follow through.
“The next steps in negotiations will test whether we can get to a verifiable deal,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. He added, “We and our allies must be prepared to restore the policy of maximum pressure.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan echoed that. “There is only one acceptable final outcome: complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
Trump didn’t clarify matters when he dialed into the Senate GOP lunch upbeat and confident as he rode Air Force One on his way back home.
Trump told the senators he had been up 26 hours. He seemed excited about the possibilities ahead, said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
“Some get all up in arms, and say, `He’s too quick to have a meeting,”‘ Paul told The Associated Press. “I don’t think he’s given away anything. Look, they’ve stopped testing, they’ve released hostages. We’ll have to see what happens, but I’m optimistic.”
Democrats were openly skeptical, saying Trump had already given up some American leverage by committing to halting U.S. military exercises with treaty ally South Korea.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., outlined a five-point plan he wanted to see as talks progress, including dismantling the North Korean nuclear weapons regime, ending production of fuels and complete weapons inspections.
Schumer said there was a long, long ways to go beyond the “little statement” produced by the two leaders.
“While we’re relieved that they’re no longer calling each other names, we are worried that these kinds of things, which are needed for America’s safety, are not happening,” Schumer said.
Sen. Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said a summit like this, on a whim and without proper preparation, wasn’t really diplomacy, but entertainment.
“We gave more than we got,” Coons said. “This is a handshake, reality TV, photo op summit.”
Still, lawmakers of both parties said they preferred diplomacy to the battle-by-tweet in which Trump and Kim seemed to threaten nuclear war. But they questioned what, exactly, happened at their face-to-face meeting.
“It is difficult to determine what of concrete nature has occurred,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
At least one Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., took a critical stance.
“While I know (at)potus is trying to butter him up to get a good deal, (hash)KJU is NOT a talented guy,” Rubio tweeted, using the shorthand for the president and for the North Korean leader. “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.”
Vice President Mike Pence met with senators at their closed-door lunch, but his presentation raised more questions than answers. The senators watched a White House video that shows the two scenarios facing North Korea — a future of trade and optimism or despair and poverty, they said.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., emerged from the meeting to say that Pence told the senators military exercises would continue.
But that was at odds with Trump’s claim that he was halting war games as talks progressed.
That created a Twitter spat that dragged into Tuesday afternoon. Pence’s spokeswoman Alyssa Farah shot back in a tweet that the vice president “didn’t say this at the Senate lunch today.”
Gardner doubled down and insisted he was right.
Paul said he heard it differently, and understood Pence to say that the small-scale exercises that go on all the time will continue but “the main, big war exercises” would not continue as long as there’s progress on denuclearization talks.
Especially for Republicans, Trump’s meeting with Kim seemed complicated given the history of North Korea’s intransience and distressing human rights record. Trump has seemed largely unconcerned about celebrating an authoritarian leader suspected of ordering the public assassination of his half brother with a nerve agent, executing his uncle by firing squad and killing U.S. college student Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier, said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, is “a constant reminder to me about the evil nature of this regime.”
“I remain skeptical but hopeful that this new dialogue can translate into meaningful progress,” Portman said in a statement. “I strongly believe that the president’s maximum pressure campaign must remain in place until North Korea truly changes course and ends its dangerous nuclear weapons program.”
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