WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said Wednesday that his CIA chief "got along really well" with Kim Jong Un during a secret meeting in North Korea, holding up the unusual talks as a reason to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.
Republican lawmakers also supported the visit, as the U.S. administration prepared for a historic summit aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and they pushed for Pompeo's rapid confirmation as top diplomat. But that prospect hung in the balance as Democrats lined up against him and questioned why they weren't briefed about the Kim meeting.
Also Wednesday, Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a joint news conference from Trump's Florida estate that the countries had agreed to start talks to develop what the leaders described as a new "free, fair and reciprocal" trade deal between the two countries after two days of talks.
Pompeo's trip to North Korea took place over Easter weekend, just over two weeks ago, according to White House officials. He is the most senior U.S. official to meet with a North Korean leader since Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim's father in Pyongyang in 2000.
But Pompeo's promotion to secretary of state is not assured.
As Republicans -- including Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- rallied around Pompeo's nomination, Democrats on the panel came out in opposition.
Sen. Robert Menendez, the top-ranking Democrat on the committee that will have the first vote on Pompeo's confirmation, expressed frustration that the CIA chief had not briefed him on the visit that took place more than a week before Pompeo's public hearing last Thursday.
"Now I don't expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open, but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be secretary of state, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit," Menendez, D-N.J., said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The committee is expected to vote on Pompeo's nomination next week. Pompeo, whose hawkish foreign-policy views and comments about minority groups have raised Democratic hackles, would replace Rex Tillerson, who was pushed out by Trump last month.
Trump provided the first public confirmation of Pompeo's meeting after dropping a hint Tuesday when he disclosed direct talks at "extremely high levels" between the U.S. and North Korea.
He said at the time that five locations are under consideration for the U.S.-North Korea summit, which could take place by early June.
People familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News that Sweden and Switzerland, as well as venues in Asia and Southeast Asia, are among the places the White House is considering for the summit. Off the table, said one person, are Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul or Panmunjom, the site of the Korean armistice signing in 1953.
"Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!" Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Later, Trump told reporters that Pompeo "had a great meeting" with Kim "and got along with him really well, really great." He said his nominee is "very smart but he gets along with people," and he predicted that Pompeo would "go down as one of the great secretaries of state."
It is not unprecedented for U.S. intelligence officials to serve as conduits for communication with Pyongyang, in addition to the more conventional diplomatic back channel between the State Department and the North Korean mission at the U.N.
In 2014, the then-director of U.S. national intelligence, James Clapper, secretly visited North Korea to bring back two American detainees. Clapper did not, however, meet with Kim, who has only in recent weeks emerged from international seclusion after taking power six years ago and super-charging North Korea's push to become a nuclear power that can threaten America with missiles.
Kim met last month with China's president and is to meet South Korea's leader April 27.
Trump told reporters Wednesday that although he's looking ahead optimistically to a meeting with Kim, he could still pull out if he feels it's "not going to be fruitful."
"If I think that if it's a meeting that is not going to be fruitful we're not going to go. If the meeting when I'm there is not fruitful I will respectfully leave the meeting," Trump said.
Abe echoed the sentiment.
"Just because North Korea is responding to dialogue, there should be no reward. Maximum pressure should be maintained," he said.
TAKING SIDES ON POMPEO
In the U.S. Senate, Republicans have a single-vote advantage on the 21-member panel that will have the first say on Pompeo's nomination. With nine of the 10 Democrats already declaring that they will oppose Pompeo, and at least one Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, also opposed, the panel could be forced to take the unusual step of sending the nomination to the full Senate without a favorable panel recommendation.
Trump said Wednesday that he expects Paul to come through on Pompeo. The president called Paul, and the senator agreed to meet with Pompeo, but Paul's spokesman said, "Nothing else has changed."
As for opposition by Democrats, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the chairman of a subcommittee on Asia, said in an interview that Democrats "want to play partisan politics."
Despite meeting Pompeo on Tuesday, Gardner said he hadn't been briefed on the trip and was awaiting more information about it. Still, he said, the fact that the meeting happened gave weight to Pompeo's testimony last week that the administration was committed to the "complete and verifiable denuclearization" of North Korea and sustaining sanctions pressure.
Some Democrats offered grudging support for the Pompeo-Kim meeting.
"I'm glad that there's some preparatory work happening for this potential summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. "I'm very worried that this summit is going to go very badly ... but I think we should all admit that it's good, not bad, that the Trump administration is trying to do some work ahead of this meeting, perhaps setting the stage for success rather than failure."
Also on MSNBC, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, "The preparation, certainly, is welcome -- there's no way that Donald Trump should go into that meeting without a lot of groundwork being laid."
But, he added, as the current CIA director, "Pompeo is the wrong person to be engaging in diplomacy."
The White House and its allies have launched a full-court press to push Democrats to vote for Pompeo -- and they are using the North Korea meeting as a reason that the concerns naysayers have raised are invalid.
"Many Senate Democrats have said or written statements ... that Mike Pompeo was too bellicose," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Wednesday on a call with reporters sponsored by the White House. He pointed to Pompeo's meeting with Kim as "the best evidence imaginable that he is committed to diplomacy."
Pompeo had said at his confirmation hearing that the summit could lay out the conditions for an agreement and "set us down the course of achieving a diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need."
China, North Korea's closest ally, also welcomed direct contact and talks between the U.S. and North Korea. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying urged a political resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and setting up a peace mechanism. The Koreas are technically still in a state of war after fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.
ON JAPANESE TRADE
While Trump and Abe touted plans Wednesday to develop a trade deal, the leaders said they had failed to reach a deal that would exempt Japan from new U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, as Abe had wanted.
"If we can come to an arrangement on a new deal, that would certainly be something we would discuss," Trump said. But, he said, the current trade deficit between the two countries is too high for him to offer an exemption now.
Most other key U.S. allies -- among them Australia, Canada, the European Union and Mexico -- have already been granted exemptions to Trump's protectionist measures on steel and aluminum.
The U.S. trade deficit with Japan last year was $56.1 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Trump said he was working to reduce that imbalance and pushing to remove barriers to U.S. exports.
"We're committed to pursuing a bilateral trading relationship that benefits both of our great countries," he said.
Japan has previously voiced reluctance to a bilateral trade deal with the U.S.
Trump also made clear Wednesday that he has little interest in rejoining negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal unless the terms are dramatically altered.
"While Japan and South Korea would like us to go back into TPP, I don't like the deal for the United States," Trump tweeted Tuesday, after a dinner with Abe and their respective wives at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. "Too many contingencies and no way to get out if it doesn't work. Bilateral deals are far more efficient, profitable and better for OUR workers."
Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership days after his inauguration but recently said he might be open to rejoining it.
Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Pennington, Zeke Miller, Lisa Mascaro, Deb Riechmann, Matthew Lee, Gillian Wong and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press; by Karoun Demirjian and Philip Rucker of The Washington Post; and by Jennifer Jacobs, Toluse Olorunnipa, David Tweed, Isabel Reynolds, Margaret Talev, Mike Dorning and Laura Litvan of Bloomberg News.
Fresh off news of his secret meeting with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (center) heads to a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill on his nomination as secretary of state.
A Section on 04/19/2018
Print Headline: Trump touts Pompeo talks; CIA leader, Kim got on well, he says