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Trump's Presidential Firsts


The timing and location are yet to be determined. But if the meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ultimately happens, it will be a first. No sitting U.S. president has ever met face to face with a North Korean dictator. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports that doing a presidential first is a powerful motivator for President Trump.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: A senior White House official was briefing reporters on President Trump's decision to meet with Kim Jong Un. When he was asked why Trump would break with diplomatic precedent and agree to the meeting without a series of lower-level negotiations to lay the groundwork first - his answer? - Trump was elected in part because he's willing to take approaches very, very different from past presidents. And those past presidents often seemed to be on his mind in a particular way. Take Trump's decision late last year to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, every president campaigned on, we're going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel - everybody - from any president. You've been reading it. And then they never pulled it off.

KEITH: That was Trump earlier this year taking a victory lap at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He explained that the lobbying from American allies opposed to the move had been intense.


TRUMP: I was hit by more countries and more pressure and more people calling - begging me. Don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it. I said, we have to do it. It's the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do. We have to do it. And I did it.


TRUMP: But every other president really lied because they campaigned on it. That was always a big part of the campaign. And then they got into office. They never did it.

KEITH: Being able to say he could do something that other presidents couldn't or wouldn't is important to Trump. To hear him tell it, that's why he made sure a provision opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling was inserted into the big tax cut bill. He said he got a call from a friend in the oil business.


TRUMP: He said Ronald Reagan and every president has wanted to get ANWR approved. And after that, I said, oh, make sure that's in the bill. It was amazing how that had an impact - that had a very big impact on me.

KEITH: And with North Korea, President Trump describes himself as coming in to clean up the mistakes of the previous three administrations. Trump over the summer - at the time, he was talking about fire and fury - indicated he would be open to talks with the North Korean regime. Prior administrations have tried lower-level and multilateral negotiations. But Trump insisted whatever he did would be different.


TRUMP: They're always considering negotiations. But they've been negotiating now for 25 years. Look at Clinton. He folded on the negotiations. He was weak and ineffective. You look what happened with Bush. You look what happened with Obama. Obama, he didn't want to talk about it. But I talk. It's about time. Somebody has to do it.

KEITH: There are still a lot of questions about how the summit will work - whether it will actually happen or succeed. When earlier this week President Trump was asked why North Korea is ready to engage now, he responded with a joke - the kind of joke that has a kernel of self-awareness.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And to what do you owe this recent openness to talk?

TRUMP: Me. No, I think that - nobody got that.

KEITH: What he went on to say was that the sanctions on North Korea are working. But you can bet that if he succeeds at neutralizing the North Korean threat, President Trump will point out that he did what others couldn't. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.