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Trump and foot-in-mouth: Kim Jong-un, Duterte and the American civil war

US President Donald Trump has set off a stream of controversies in media interviews in recent days celebrating his first 100 days in office and in general remarks and statements.

world Updated: May 02, 2017 18:38 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Donald Trump,Kim Jong-Un,Rodrigo Duterte
US President Donald Trump has said he will be honoured to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and has invited Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte to the White House.(REUTERS)

US President Donald Trump has said he will be “honoured” to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and has invited controversial Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte to the White House and displayed a loose grasp of his country’s watershed and defining historical period, the 1861-1865 Civil War.

In media interviews in recent days celebrating his first 100 days in office and in general remarks and statements, Trump has set off a stream of controversies going against not only the commonly accepted punditry about these world leaders, but also his own administration and aides. And not for the first time.

The reaction to his surprising outreach to Kim and Duterte ranged from outrage — human rights groups and some media outlets said the president had invited a killer to the White House — to watchful wariness about Trump’s apparent break from the establishment and go with his instincts.

But first, his take on the four-year-long Civil War that ripped apart America over abolition of slavery.

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” Trump said about the country’s seventh president he idolises in an interview to SiriusXM radio.

“He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this’.”

The problem: Jackson, himself a slave-owner from Tennessee in the pro-slavery South, died in 1845, more than a decade for the civil war broke out in 1861. Historians have said Trump could have been referring to another crisis between the union and the south that Jackson handled in 1832.

The president also wondered in that interview if the war was necessary. “People don’t realise, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Trump, who believes in the power of deal-making and wrote a bestseller extolling it, may have been arguing there for the north and the south to have talked it out minus the devastations and the bloodshed, but, unfortunately for him, historians are not on his side.

Jon Meecham, who wrote a Pulitzer-winning book on Jackson, told The New York Times, “The expansion of slavery caused the Civil War … And you can’t get around that. So what does Trump mean? Would he have let slavery exist but not expand? That’s the counterfactual question you have to ask.”

If his civil war remarks raised questions about his knowledge, of the lack of it, of the country’s past, those about Kim and Duterte were found troubling for the present and future.

“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely; I would be honored to do it,” Trump told Bloomberg news in an interview on Monday, when asked if he would be willing to sit down with the North Korean leader.

Trump has been teasing the possibility of negotiations with the North Korean leader, who has been testing the new administration with missile tests, expressing empathy with someone forced to take on a job at an early age.

But “honoured” to meet him?

White House spokesperson Sean Spicer contextualised it at his daily briefing telling reporters Trump’s offer was conditional. “We’ve got to see their provocative behaviour ratcheted down immediately. There’s a lot of conditions that I think would have to happen with respect to its behavior and to show signs of good faith.”

He added, “Clearly, conditions are not there right now, but I think the President has made it clear, as Secretary Tillerson had the other day, that if the conditions, if the circumstances present themselves we’ll be prepared to, but they’re clearly not at this time.”

About the invitation to the Philippine President, Trump pointed to Duterte’s popularity ratings, which are accorded a high priority by him, overlooking the extra-judicial killings he has admitted to ordering as a law enforcement officer.

As president, Duterte’s tenure has been marked by more killings allegedly of suspected drug traffickers and his tendency to insult counterparts around the world

He might have saved Trump the embarrassment by indicating he is likely to be too busy to accept the White House invitation.

First Published: May 02, 2017 09:17 IST