Camp David is the official American presidential retreat, located in the Catoctin Mountains in north-western Maryland, about a half hour away from Washington via presidential helicopter. The site originally was a land restoration effort carried out on some worn-out farmland by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Thereafter, it became the presidential retreat during World War II. Back then, President Franklin Roosevelt had nicknamed it the USS Shangri-La, in homage to the mythic land in James Hilton’s best-selling novel, Lost Horizon. President Dwight Eisenhower renamed it Camp David after his grandson, and it has been Camp David ever since.
While it has usually been the spot for the president and official guests to get away from the hubbub of Washington, and the intrusive, prying eyes of the global media, when needed, to recharge and rest, it has also been the site of such momentous conversations as the historic Middle East peace agreement, the Camp David Accord. Reserved for the president and his guests, so far at least, in the Trump administration, the incumbent president has largely eschewed use of this rustic retreat, preferring his own name-branded golf clubs in New Jersey and Florida instead – at significant additional cost to the taxpayer.
However, this past weekend, Donald Trump elected to host a family retreat with his children at Camp David, although his wife, Melania, decided not to join the festivities. This family get-together came about after an exhausting week in which Donald Trump had already met two Kims. First he met senior North Korean envoy (and former spy chief) Kim Yong-chol (who had, up until that moment, been an official subject to severe sanctions and prohibitions on visiting the US by virtue of his work as a spymaster reportedly responsible for, among other things, the hacking of Sony Pictures and other elements of his country’s general bad boy behaviour). He also met with the reality show television star Kim Kardashian at the White House (in a separate meeting).
In addition, there has been his continuing Twitter war against his critics and the media; has been buffeted by the after-effects of Roseanne Barr’s own Twitter meltdown and the subsequent cancellation of her hit television show (Roseanne had become a vocal, vociferous defender and proponent of Trump and her disgrace had a personal impact on him).
Not to be ignored, also, have been his ongoing tirades against foreign nations for their trade practices and his decision to impose a variety of tariffs on heretofore allied, friendly nations – and their own angry, hurt, or astonished responses. Not to be forgotten in all this uproar was yet another long-running presidential protocol torn up when he telegraphed the good news on the monthly job figures, before they were officially announced by the Commerce Department (and just perhaps to the benefit of sharp traders on Wall Street who read every presidential tweet with an eye to the Dow-Jones numbers and other indices).
Anyway, off went nearly the whole Trump “megillah” (minus the first lady, curiously) to cool off some; to bask in the glory of the golden presidential glow; to ride around Camp David in the official presidential golf carts available there; to play a few holes on the pitch and putt course there; to eat communal meals, and to otherwise pretend to be gentleman/woman farmers in the quiet of Frederick County. Camp David is not quite the peasant’s cottage Marie Antoinette caused to have constructed at the Palace of Versailles so she could gambol with well-groomed lambs and a happy pseudo-peasantry pretending to farm.
But, assuming the weather was good, they surely had a lovely time engaging in some gentle outdoor games before they sat down to consume some artisanal fast foods like Big Mac-ish sandwiches, taco bowls, fried chicken, and chilli, followed by something that might have looked and tasted remarkably like that world-beating chocolate cake the president had raved about at Mar-a-Lago while he was hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for discussions.
Anyway, they all – the president, apparently accompanied by Don Jr, Eric, Ivanka, Tiffany, Barron, and respective spouses and children from the first three – headed to Camp David via helicopters (Marine One and the follow-on craft) for a weekend of fun, food and frolics together. Presumably, too, there were some of the president’s aides (one or two must have come along as well because they must), besides the Secret Service and communications specialists on the trip. These aides were undoubtedly bearing some of those black-covered, heavy, detailed, top-secret-for-the-president’s-eyes-only briefing books (complete with bright pictures and colourful graphics) for the president’s prep for the now-almost-certainly-imminent meeting with North Korea’s own president, Kim Jong-un. For them, the challenge would be to get the president’s attention away from the rustic fun and games (and the tacos, chocolate cake and golf carts) long enough to focus, focus, focus like a laser beam on North Korea.
Fortunately for us, we have been able to gain an insight into all of this because we had an eye in the sky, or, rather, an ear in the Camp David dining room. It turns out one of the stewards on duty there has a brother whose best friend is engaged to one of the migrants who have been trying to gain access to the US via the southern border from El Salvador – and away from the death and chaos of that unhappy nation. This steward’s brother’s friend had inveigled the conflicted steward (loyalty to friend versus the protocol of omertà over what goes on at Camp David) to secretly record the dinner conversation, in order to extract some leverage with the government. We, in turn, were fortunate to gain a copy of some of the contents of that thumb drive. Below, we publish excerpts from that conversation that do not endanger national security. (We’ve chosen to follow James Comey’s example in all this for inspiration.)
Sounds of tables being cleared and dessert being brought.
POTUS: Now that was a great meal. Okay, maybe not as great as the Trump Grill, nothing is, but these folks here, they try. I’ll get them some recipes so that they can make things I really want in the way I want them made for next time we’re out here in this wilderness retreat. Let me ask you, Ivanka, you’ve had a chance to talk with John Bolton and that other guy, the one with the not really American name, the one who knows so much about Korea. Or says he does. He’s the one who helped put that big binder together, the one I said I would look at tomorrow. What do you think of him? Will he make America great? Again?
Does he even know how to negotiate with the gonifs and schnorers like I did in Manhattan throughout my life, or with those goyim in those robber banks I had to deal with over those casinos – or at the television network?
Ivanka: Yes, daddy. I spoke with John Bolton and that other man today before dinner and then Jared joined us until we came in here to eat with you and everybody else. Daddy, you really are the best negotiator in the world, you know that. But maybe you should listen to them for a few minutes to help you get the details just right. Or, maybe they can put their key ideas on a small card for you to be able to look at, just in case you forget a fact or two. You know, the way someone like that Michael Cohen or Rudy Giuliani could do for you if you needed it in other matters.
Don Jr: C’mon, sis. You know dad is the smartest, canniest, best negotiator of all. He has that gut knowledge that got him elected. Let him prepare for this meeting the way he has always prepared for things like this. Look’it, this Kim fellow is no patsy, and he’s tougher than some of those Russkie folks we’ve had to keep in line, but he’s just the head of some small nasty place you wouldn’t want to build a hotel or a golf course in, let alone spend any time in right now…
Eric:… (Interrupting)… Say, this North Korea is full of mountains and forests way up in the north; do you suppose there are some Siberian tigers or Asian bears I could bag to go with all the other big cats I’ve been able to hunt? Maybe you could get a deal with them over a hunting lodge?…
Ivanka: … (Interrupting)… Wait a minute, guys. As you know, our fashion and accessory lines are getting some good deals with China now. Maybe we could work out a way to get some manufacturing opportunities there in North Korea for things. Wages are definitely lower there than even in China, and if they can make nuclear weapons and missiles, they can make fashion bags, shoes, jewellery, frocks and coats. I think that could be a real carrot for you to dangle in front of that cute sister Kim has. The one with the fashion sense.
Jared Kushner: And his wife is pretty cute too…
Ivanka: Jared! Stop it!
Tiffany: Daddy, I know I don’t work for you in the White House yet, hint, hint, but I’d like to come along on this trip. I really want to visit Singapore – it’s got some great shopping and big, beautiful deals on things like gem stones and silk textiles and clothing. And the botanical park and bird park is supposed to be great too. I had a college friend who used to live there when her father ran a bank there, and she told me all about it. Do you suppose I could take a bit longer and visit some of the really nice shopping in Malaysia, or Indonesia?
POTUS: Children. You know I really like it when you all take an interest in my work for the American people. This business of being president and making America great again really is harder than I thought it would be – and your ideas are always welcomed and useful. Maybe this Korea thing is even harder than that dumb healthcare thing, or building a big beautiful wall, or those stupid dreamers from all those horrible countries what with their drugs, murders, rapists, thieves, and other thugs.
But on this one I’m going to rely on my gut, just like I always have, right from when I started working for your grandfather and was arm-in-arm with all those real Americans in the construction business – the bricklayers, the plumbers, carpenters, concrete pourers, whoah, that was great fun and it told me how real Americans think.
And, of course, if we get this thing just right, we’ll all get to go to Norway – beautiful country with beautiful people in it, more of them should become immigrants to America – in December so I can get that big, beautiful medal and the fancy scroll and meet the king of Norway and Mrs Queen and we can put the pictures up on the wall here or in Trump Tower in the entry foyer. That would be better than that silly award those Swedes gave that Kenyan president this country used to have. (Say, why do the Swedes give out the medals, if I get to pick mine up in Norway? Is that fair? Will someone please explain this to me? Oh, never mind. I’ll ask John Kelly, he’ll be able to explain it, or maybe Mike Pompeo has the answer.)
Does anybody else remember the comic strip in the Sunday papers called “Dondi”? I used to love that comic. It was all about the Korean War and how American troops adopted an orphaned boy in the middle of that war. And remember, that is a war that has been running for 70 years, it’s the longest war in history, you can look that up, and I have the chance to end it, to bring it to a peaceful end, to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula, to make North Korea a rich, strong, happy nation, as long as that Mr Kim can see how good a deal this will be for him and for his people. Okay, sure, they have some human rights issues there, remember those American prisoners they kept that we got freed and that Mike brought home to America (even though they all looked a lot like Koreans, Japanese, or Chinese or something to me, that surprised me, but hey, we got some TV ratings that night, didn’t we?)… Shame about that other boy, but that was before we could make Kim see the light, wasn’t it?
Barron: Dad? Dad? Can I say something? I did a big school project on the Korean War – and I had to read a lot about the peninsula and its history on the internet. And I think those people are very proud of their independence and their history of fending off everyone so they can do their own thing.
There were the Russians, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Manchus, even the Americans (at least in the north) that have been there in history. Up there, they have a national philosophy, I read about it, it is something called “juche” I think it is, and my geography teacher explained it means “self-reliance”. They don’t like being shoved around by anybody. When you talk with that Mr Kim, the guy with the funny haircut, what can you give them that they really want and can’t get from the Chinese?
What does Mr Bolton or that other man who came with him to this place think might be good for that? Didn’t the people in that Clinton administration offer them help with electrical power and fuel oil; and didn’t the second Bush president take part in something called the six party talks that also didn’t work out well? What do you think you have you can give them that those other men didn’t or couldn’t?
Sounds of dessert dishes and coffee cups being removed and chairs being scraped on the floor. The door opens and there are the sounds of footsteps as several other people join the people gathered at the table.
Voice one: Mr President? Have you had a chance to look at those briefing materials yet? We’d like to review the options you have during this weekend so that any areas that are still unclear, then the national Security Council staff can spell it out for you or have an opportunity to get the material from other government offices. We hope you understand the many options you do have on relaxing some sanctions, potential investment assistance offers that might be available, the relationship between Korea and China, Korea and Russia, Korea and Japan, and Korean nuclear efforts and the way you have been handling the Iran accord – and how these issues might affect tariff deals.
Voice two: Mr President – if you have questions, the full resources of your government await any requests for more details on any of these issues. Of course the actual summit discussions will depend totally on the way you and President Kim find the way forward. There is the example of how the late Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev handled their discussions, informally, ad hoc, flexible. Of course there is also the way other presidents handled their relationships with other Soviet adversaries over the years; but we need some guidance from you in the succeeding 10 days before you head towards Singapore.
POTUS: Great, thanks. Got it. The details are for the detail men who come in afterwards to sort out the small stuff. My task, and I am uniquely able to do the job, as you all know, is to get along with that Mr Kim, I’m going to be honoured to meet with him, like I said, and like I told that other Kim – no, not that Kim Kardashian, but she was a much better looker than he was, wasn’t she, with that slinky dark hair and that nice dress number, maybe she could help around the White House with visitors…. Oh, right. Details. I’ll get back to you tomorrow.
Now, for tonight, I had the staff come up with a collection of classic movies about the Korean War that we can watch. There are The Bridges at Toko-Ri, American Caesar, M*A*S*H, and Pork Chop Hill, as well as some of the best moments from the original Roseanne show, shame about her. She was just so mistreated, totally unfair the way she got her show cancelled and that stupid, embarrassing, vulgar Samantha Bee hasn’t even had a slap on the wrist, and they didn’t apologise to me, and Roseanne had such great ratings. Stupid people in Hollywood sometimes.
Sounds of chairs scraping on the floor as the get up to go to the lodge multi-purpose room as the family argues over whether M*A*S*H would be better to watch than any of the others.
While the transcript ends here, it does allow us to speculate on how Kim Jong-un has been spending his time preparing for this historic summit. By contrast, it is almost certain that, together with Kim Yong-chol and other experienced hands at negotiating with foreigners over the years, the president has been sorting out all the options for what he is most eager to achieve. Is it to be a photo opportunity; a chance to lash out at the Americans for all of their sins against Korea; or are there real opportunities and advantages to gain, especially since it is clear President Trump has been lusting for this meeting, ever since the opportunity came up in the wake of the winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
An absolute key for Kim and his compatriots will be just how much to push, and how hard, in order to create some space between Trump and America – and America’s allies South Korea and Japan, and even its sometime adversary Russia, as well as China in the midst of a brewing trade war between the two powers. In the end, maybe Kim will get to run the table on Donald Trump, but Trump will get that all-important photo opportunity and a joint communiqué that promises something in the future. DM
Speaking Kurdish in Turkey was illegal until the 1990s.