Inside Trump's decision to cancel his North Korea summit

WASHINGTON — Early Thursday morning, after a flurry of calls with a handful of senior advisers, an angry President Donald Trump personally dictated the three-paragraph letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that cancelled the scheduled summit between their two nations.

It had been less than 12 hours since Trump and his team began grappling intensely with the prospects for shelving what would have been an historic meeting between the two heads of state.

But the president, fearing the North Koreans might beat him to the punch, wanted to be the one to cancel first, multiple officials told NBC News.

"There was no hint of this yesterday," a person briefed on the summit preparations said, calling Trump's decision "high risk, high reward."

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A look at the day Trump cancelled the North Korea summit
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A look at the day Trump cancelled the North Korea summit
A man watches a television news screen showing US President Donald Trump (L) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R), at a railway station in Seoul on May 25, 2018. - US President Donald Trump on May 24 called off his planned June summit with Kim Jong Un, blaming 'open hostility' from the North Korean regime and warning Pyongyang against committing any 'foolish or reckless acts.' (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A letter from U.S. President Donald Trump to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un canceling their upcoming planned summit in Singapore is seen in this photo released by the White House in Washington, U.S. May 24, 2018. The White House via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A commemorative coin released by the White House for a potential 'peace summit,' featuring the names and silhouettes of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader�Kim�Jung�Un, is displayed for a photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 24, 2018. Trump�canceled his planned�summit�with Kim Jong Un�that had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, citing 'tremendous anger and open hostility' in recent statements from Pyongyang. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A news editor in Washington, DC looks at the 'deal of the day' on the official website of the White House gift shop May 24, 2018 as the commemorative coin featuring US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un goes for USD 19.95 instead of the regular price of USD 24.95. - The price of the coin, struck by the White House Communications Agency ahead of the much anticipated US-North Korea summit meeting, seemed to lose value shortly after Trump called off the June 12, 2018 summit blaming 'tremenduous anger' and 'hostility' from the North Korean regime and warning Pyongyang against committing any 'foolish or reckless acts.' (Photo by Eva HAMBACH / AFP) (Photo credit should read EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 25: A man reads a newspaper at Seoul railway station on May 25, 2018 in Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. President Donald Trump called off the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore due to 'tremendous anger and open hostility' in recent statements from Pyongyang. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 25: People watch a TV report at Seoul railway station on May 25, 2018 in Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. President Donald Trump called off the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore due to 'tremendous anger and open hostility' in recent statements from Pyongyang. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
A man reads the front page of a newspaper at a railway station in Seoul on May 25, 2018 showing a picture of US President Donald Trump. - US President Donald Trump on May 24 called off his planned June summit with Kim Jong Un, blaming 'open hostility' from the North Korean regime and warning Pyongyang against committing any 'foolish or reckless acts.' (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man watches a television news showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (R) and US President Donald Trump (L), at a railway station in Seoul on May 24, 2018. - North Korea has dismantled its nuclear test site, media invited to attend the ceremony said on May 24, in a carefully choreographed move portrayed by the isolated regime as a goodwill gesture ahead of a potential summit next month with the US. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A commemorative coin released by the White House for a potential 'peace summit,' featuring the names and silhouettes of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader�Kim�Jung�Un, is arranged photograph taken in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 24, 2018. Trump�canceled his planned�summit�with Kim Jong Un�that had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, citing 'tremendous anger and open hostility' in recent statements from Pyongyang. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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In the previous hours, the president had listened to blistering rhetoric from North Korea, was contending with inflammatory remarks from his own vice president and caught between competing positions from his secretary of state and his national security adviser, officials said.

White House officials said discussions about cancelling began in earnest late Wednesday and included the president, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, chief of staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Defense Secretary James Mattis wasn't involved in the discussions Wednesday, though Trump said that he called Mattis about it Thursday morning.

But it was a second round of calls early Thursday, between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., according to senior White House officials, that convinced Trump to walk away from the summit. His letter went to the North Koreans at 9:43 a.m.

The decision occurred so abruptly that the administration was unable to give congressional leaders and key allies advance notice and the letter went out while more than two dozen foreign journalists, including several U.S. citizens, were inside North Korea where they had gone to witness a promised dismantling of a nuclear test site. At 8:20 a.m., the State Department sent a note to reporters touting the positive discussions that Pompeo was having with Asian counterparts in preparation for the summit.

The move exposed significant disagreements among the president's top advisers. Several administration officials said Pompeo, who has taken the lead in negotiating with the North Koreans, blamed Bolton for torpedoing the progress that had already been made. Pompeo flew to Pyongyang twice, met personally with Kim and helped secure the release of three Americans who had been held there. Bolton, a longtime national security hawk who has publicly advocated for regime change in North Korea, was integral, these officials said, to convincing Trump to back out of the summit.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trips to North Korea
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trips to North Korea
FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in this May 9, 2018 photo released on May 10, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in this May 9, 2018 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang May 10, 2018. KCNA / via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
The three Americans formerly held hostage in North Korea gesture next to U.S.President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, upon their arrival at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in this May 9, 2018 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang May 10, 2018. KCNA / via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in this May 9, 2018 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang May 10, 2018. KCNA / via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo greets an unidentified North Korean general on arrival at the Pyongyang, North Korea, May 9, 2018. Matthew Lee/Pool via REUTERS
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in this undated photo released on May 9, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, director of the United Front Department, which is responsible for North-South Korea affairs and Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, on his arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea May 9, 2018. Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il later and secured the release of three American prisoners ahead of a planned summit between Kim and President Donald Trump. Matthew Lee/Pool via REUTERS
A U.S. government handout photo released by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shows U.S. Central Intelligence (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea in a photo that Sanders said was taken over Easter weekend 2018. U.S. Government via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks across as the tarmac as US President Donald Trump prepares to greet American detainees Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul that were freed by North Korea, as they arrive on a military airplane at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 09: South Koreans watch on a screen reporting the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visit to North Korea at the Seoul Railway Station on May 9, 2018 in Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. President Donald Trump announced today that the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on his way to North Korea to finalise plans for the summit with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-Un. It is Pompeo's second trip to Pyongyang after a meeting with Kim last month as CIA director. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
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But another senior official pushed back on any tension between Pompeo and Bolton, describing the four principals as a "pretty tight-knit group" on this topic.

Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado told reporters on Thursday, after a meeting at the White House, that Trump dictated the letter directly to Bolton.

One person close to Trump said that the president was unhappy with Pence for public remarks he made earlier this week that appeared to threaten Kim with the prospect of regime change if North Korea didn't meet America's terms to rid itself of nuclear weapons. "This will only end like the Libyan model ended if Kim Jung Un doesn't make a deal," Pence said Monday.

A senior administration official said if the president was indeed unhappy with his vice president, he did not express it directly — adding that Pence's "Libyan model" comments should not have come as a surprise to President Trump.

Bolton was first to issue such a threat on April 29, when he also referred to Libya, whose former leader, Muammar Qaddafi was ousted, with U.S. assistance, several years after he agreed to give up ambitions of a nuclear weapons program. Such comparisons to Qaddafi have infuriated the North Koreans.

Trump tried to repair the damage on May 17, when he rejected the Libyan comparison and later guaranteed Kim's security. Pence's remarks reignited the North's anger and a senior foreign diplomat responded by issuing a counter threat of a "nuclear showdown."

One senior administration official said that Bolton and Pompeo, new to each other since Bolton joined the administration less than two months ago, have been at odds about the summit since it was first proposed. The State Department, this official said, had wanted more advance work done with agreements and decisions on achievable goals made before Trump and Kim met.

"This has been like herding cats," the official said.

Bolton, who has led the effort on the White House side, has worked unilaterally to shape the summit. One person familiar with the summit preparations said it was Bolton who drove the decision to cancel and that he had convinced Trump to make the move. Trump then relayed his decision to Pompeo, who felt blindsided, according to multiple officials.

A driving factor for the president was the belief that Kim was heading toward a similar conclusion.

Still, several officials pointed to a door Trump left ajar in his remarks Thursday when he suggested such a summit may be possible in the future.

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