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North Korea's Invitation To Meet Capped A Week Full Of WH Announcements

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The developments in North Korea capped a week full of big political stories coming out of the White House. President Trump signed an executive order on tariffs for steel and aluminum. His decision on tariffs led his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to resign. And there's the adult film star known as Stormy Daniels and the legal fight over that $130,000 dollar payout.

We're going to talk about all this now during our regular Friday political chat with E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hi, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

SHAPIRO: And also, Guy Benson of townhall.com is here. Hi, Guy.

GUY BENSON: Good to see you.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with that North Korea conversation. No one saw this coming. The president has always called himself a negotiator. E.J., what do you expect this to become?

DIONNE: I confess out front that I am always nervous when Donald Trump proposes to walk into a room with a dictator. Not good things happen then. Having said that, Trump always likes himself to be at the center of everything. And so I think this move by him is a natural in one sense because this puts him at the center. On the other hand, you saw the problem with this impulsiveness today when the White House, having come under criticism for giving Kim Jong Un this platform without any concessions, now says that without concrete actions the meeting won't happen. So we don't really know what's happening here. Paradoxically, Trump got praise from some quarters that don't usually praise him because they were just so relieved he was willing to negotiate at all.

SHAPIRO: Guy, Republicans were critical of the Obama administration's decision to negotiate with Iran and with Cuba. What do you make of this decision to negotiate with North Korea?

BENSON: I'm actually glad you brought that up because this announcement reminded me very vividly of the 2008 Democratic primary in which Barack Obama, then a candidate, promised that he would meet with a whole host of dictators without any preconditions. And the Republican foreign policy establishment...

DIONNE: I think it was just the Iranians.

BENSON: No, it was a host. It was a host of them. And the Republican establishment was aghast by this. And then last night it looked like that's exactly what President Trump himself had agreed to vis-a-vis arguably the worst dictator in the world. Now, they've walked that back and climbed it back a little bit. There is a precondition, but it's a very hazy one. And I think the ultimate question is, what does a "concrete action," quote, unquote, look like? What does it mean? And beyond that it's all speculation.

SHAPIRO: We have heard a lot...

DIONNE: That's correct.

SHAPIRO: We've heard a lot about the kind of absent ranks of the people at the State Department who would ordinarily be paving the way for this kind of negotiation. How much of a hindrance do you think that is to these things going well?

DIONNE: I think the missing pieces of the Trump administration particularly in the State Department are a huge hindrance on the operation of the government. But as we heard earlier, it's never clear who Trump will be willing to listen to on any of these matters anyway, especially when he gets one-on-one with one of these leaders, which is...

SHAPIRO: So you're saying even if those people were there President Trump might not use their expertise.

DIONNE: Correct. And you already have a sense of that because Secretary of State Tillerson seems to have been taken aback by this announcement.

BENSON: And by the way, I just think what the Trump administration would argue and Trump defenders - what they would say is having career diplomats is fine, but they have failed for decades with North Korea. And mixing things up and trying something totally different is worth a try because the smart people doing it the right way have resulted in basically a nuclearized North Korea. That's the pushback they'd give.

DIONNE: And of course the problem is, what's the opposite of the smart people doing it the right way? But anyway...

SHAPIRO: OK, to change gears...

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: Put all of those words in quotes.

SHAPIRO: To change gears for a moment, I want to reach way, way back in history to about 3:30 p.m. yesterday afternoon (laughter) when President Trump signed orders imposing sweeping new tariffs on steel and aluminum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A strong steel and aluminum industry are vital to our national security - absolutely vital. Steel is steel. You don't have steel, you don't have a country.

SHAPIRO: Guy, how significant do you think it is that President Trump has broken with many leaders of his own party on this?

BENSON: It's significant. And it's a bad decision. And it's a self-inflicted wound. We heard earlier in the broadcast the jobs news today. The economy is humming, says the New York Times. Things are really going well. Trump policies are working. And here's this wet blanket, a totally unnecessary, gratuitous move by the president that could undo some of the progress that he's been touting. And I think that Republicans are right to push back. It seems like maybe there's now - they're offering waivers to certain countries and he's softened his rhetoric a little bit. But this is Trump - an instance of Trump going with his gut where I think it flies in the face of virtually all economic consensus.

SHAPIRO: E.J.?

DIONNE: I think what this decision shows is that Trump is genuinely nervous about the fact that he has not delivered much of anything to those working-class swing voters who swung key states to him, including Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And so this is Trump saying to them, I'm still that guy. And I think one of the things he had in his head is this race in Pennsylvania, this special election in western...

SHAPIRO: On Tuesday - a House race.

DIONNE: A House race where the Republicans are in real trouble there. We don't know how it's going to turn out, but it's way closer than it should be in a Trump district. And ironically, if the Republicans...

BENSON: Not just a Trump district. He won it by double digits.

DIONNE: Correct. And I think if the Republicans now pull this out, Trump is going to campaign there. He's going to say, well, you guys hate my tariff, but my tariff helped pull your irons out of the fire.

BENSON: But trade wars are a lose-lose proposition. This is what economics - basic economics teaches us. And our partners around the world and our adversaries around the world are sophisticated people. And that's why we've seen threats for retaliation against businesses based in Kentucky and Wisconsin, which happen to be states represented by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. There's a pressure point.

SHAPIRO: OK, in our last minute we have to discuss the story that in any other presidency would be dominating all of the newspapers all of the time. And that is Stormy Daniels, aka Stephanie Clifford, the porn star who says she had an affair with the president. There were some legal developments related to her this week. This would have been the downfall of any other president. So far it has not been for President Trump. Guy, do you think it could yet be?

BENSON: Probably not. The one thing of this story that I think gets not too much attention but does worry me is the fact that it looks very much like this $130,000 was paid to this porn star to be quiet before the election. Trump may have known about it. We're learning more. The fact that I think a lot of people would say it's baked into the cake that Trump does this sort of thing - have sex outside of marriage with porn stars - wouldn't shock the American people. But the fact that he would be willing in some way to facilitate six-figure payments to avoid this coming out - I worry about blackmail and the susceptibility of the president to blackmail on an issue that most people think he might be shameless about, but clearly he's not.

SHAPIRO: Well, the question of blackmail brings up Russia, which is a whole nother issue. But, E.J., I'll give you the last word.

DIONNE: Well, A, this does play into the fears about the Russian story. But there's also another thing about those payments, which is they could well be in violation of the campaign finance law. There are people - I think there will be calls, legitimate calls for the FBI to investigate whether this constituted an illegal campaign contribution. So maybe sex can't get - undermine Donald Trump, but breaking the campaign law might.

SHAPIRO: OK, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and Guy Benson of townhall.com, thank you for ending another very busy news week here with us.

BENSON: Of course.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEAT MECHANICS' "SURVIVING THE TIMES (INSTRUMENTAL COVER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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