It has become Donald Trump’s anecdote of choice for world leaders. At the last two G7 summit meetings — which bring together the heads of government of Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, the UK and the US — the president has launched into the same lengthy monologue about what a “great guy” Kim Jong Un is.
The story got its latest outing at last month’s summit in Biarritz, France, as the world leaders were gathered around the table for the formal meeting. When the discussion turned to North Korea — which had spent much of the month firing short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in a serious threat to stability in the region — Trump went off on a tangent, spending some 10 minutes rambling about his great relationship with Kim, leaving the other G7 leaders mostly speechless, three sources with direct knowledge of the discussions told BuzzFeed News.
All the leaders — apart from new British prime minister Boris Johnson, who was making his G7 debut — had heard Trump tell the exact same story the same way the last time they all gathered round the summit table, in Canada last year.
Central to Trump’s bizarre riff is the series of “Little Rocket Man” tweets the president directed at Kim two years ago.
The story goes like this:
When Trump first met Kim, in Singapore in June last year, the two men talked about the tweets that Trump had posted in 2017, nicknaming the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man.”
In Trump’s retelling, during a back-and-forth exchange about the name-calling the two men had engaged in over many months before the meeting in Singapore — “You called me fat… and then you called me this,” — Kim asks Trump why he’d called him that.
“Don’t you know Elton John? It’s a great song,” the president, who is a big fan of the British musician, says.
To which Kim responds, “But you called me ‘little.’”
Then comes Trump's punchline: “That’s what he didn’t like!”
Trump repeating the same anecdote about Elton John and a brutal dictator to a bemused set of world leaders sounds like the latest Twitter joke about America's president — just another Gorilla Channel moment on the blurry edge of panic and dark humor.
But Trump's G7 soliloquy is not a parody. And it captures a more serious truth of the Trump administration: the president, viewed from afar as a dangerous buffoon by his liberal critics, often elicits a similar response from other world leaders who deal with him up close.
The real-life outbursts behind the closed doors of a high-level summit are not very different to what people see on his Twitter feed. While one source dryly described the ramblings on Kim as “very entertaining,” they're laughing at him, not with him, and it is behavior like this that has dramatically undermined the president’s global political power at a time when the US is trying to build support for action against China and Iran.
Trump’s words and views about Kim in private are not too dissimilar to those he has expressed many times before in public, another G7 source noted.
The president has consistently praised the North Korean dictator and has often adopted warm words to paint their relationship. He even justified North Korea’s recent missile tests.
After firing John Bolton, his national security adviser, last week, Trump told White House reporters that Kim "wanted nothing to do with” Bolton. “I don’t blame Kim Jong Un,” the president said.
But a source emphasized the absurdity of Trump departing on a strange tangent in the middle of serious G7 discussions to wax lyrical about Kim.
Trump described Kim as “brutal” but at the same time explained “what a great guy he was,” the source recalled. Trump then went on to tell the other leaders how Kim had risen to power aged only 25 in a difficult environment.
“He is so fascinated with him,” a source said. “He has a childish fascination with brutality,” they added, before speculating that in part this was possibly a convoluted way for Trump to express how tough he was in dealing with Kim.
His remarks had no coherent thread or real purpose, according to the source.
Johnson, the UK prime minister, briefly tried to engage, the source said. “The other leaders just sat back, and didn’t know what to say.”
The White House has been approached for comment.