HANOI – President Donald Trump opened an historic second summit with Kim Jong Un here Wednesday by pledging to push for North Korean denuclearization, even as he faced a political firestorm at home that threatens to eclipse any progress.
"I think it'll be very successful," Trump said as he and Kim posed for the cameras, proclaiming that he and his North Korean counterpart have a "great relationship." At another photo opportunity, Kim said he is certain of an outcome "that will be welcomed by all people," and "I will do my best to make that happen."
But Trump's diplomatic efforts come as his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, is expected to allege "criminal conduct" by the president in his first public testimony later Wednesday before Congress.
Trump met with Kim for a brief private conversation, followed by a "social dinner," all marking their first face-to-face encounter since the two met in Singapore last summer.
The ceremonial events, splashed across U.S. television screens early Wednesday morning, are expected give way to more substantive talks on the second and final day of the summit Thursday.
Simply put, Trump is trying to get Kim to commit to specific steps to eliminate nuclear weapons programs, while Kim wants Trump to lift economic sanctions that are crippling his impoverished nation.
In urging denuclearization, Trump told Kim that "some people would like to see it go quicker, but you're satisfied, I'm satisfied." He also suggested giving up nuclear weapons would draw economic assistance, telling Kim that North Korea has "unbelievable, unlimited potential," and "I look forward to watching it happen and to helping it to happen."
Asked about another goal – formally ending the Korean War – Trump told reporters, "we'll see."
Meanwhile, Trump and other White House officials, mindful that the visit to Vietnam is competing for public attention among millions of Americans, attacked Cohen in the hours before the Kim meeting.
Trump tweeted that Cohen "did bad things unrelated to Trump," and "is lying in order to reduce his prison time."
Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also. He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using Crooked’s lawyer!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 27, 2019
Some foreign policy analysts said they worry that Trump will be too willing to strike a bad deal with Kim in order to draw attention from his domestic problems, including Cohen's testimony.
"Congress should have postponed Cohen testimony, and Potus should not be tweeting about Cohen from Hanoi," tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Trump appeared annoyed when reporters asked him about Cohen at one of the summit photo opps. The White House later restricted reporter access to the dinner with Trump, Kim, and their aides.
The president did say he plans to hold a news conference after Thursday's meetings with the North Korean leader.
Trump also spent some pre-meeting time launching a Twitter attack on one of his congressional critics, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and claiming he discussed the senator's exaggerations about his war record in a meeting with Vietnam officials.
Tweeting that "I have now spent more time in Vietnam than Da Nang Dick Blumenthal," Trump added that "his war stories of his heroism in Vietnam were a total fraud - he was never even there. We talked about it today with Vietnamese leaders!"
Trump did not serve in the military during the Vietnam years, claiming college and medical deferments that included bone spurs in his foot.
The tumult back in Washington – lawmakers are also busy with a measure, approved by the Democratic-controlled House, to repeal Trump's border wall emergency – threaten to overshadow the work in Hanoi.
The president's troubles only add to the pressure to deliver results with Kim, who has signaled an interest in stronger relations with the United States but declined to dismantle his nuclear program.
In the days leading up to the summit, Trump appeared to lower expectations, claiming he is "in no rush" for denuclearization as long as Pyongyang continues to suspend missile tests.
Hours before the sit-down with the North Korean leader, Trump held largely ceremonial meetings with the leaders of Vietnam, and said their country can be a model for Kim, whom he described as "my friend."
"Vietnam is thriving like few places on earth. North Korea would be the same, and very quickly, if it would denuclearize," Trump tweeted early in the day.
More than four decades after the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese view the summit as an opportunity to assert themselves on the world diplomatic stage. Heavily promoting the Trump-Kim summit, light poles in Hanoi are festooned with the flags of the U.S., North Korea and Vietnam, mounted on a shield featuring an image of a handshake.
Large posters advertising the summit proclaim Hanoi as "The City For Peace."
Trump and Kim met at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, an Art Nouveau masterpiece that harkens back to French colonial days in Hanoi. Past guests at the hotel have ranged from the comedian Charlie Chaplin to current Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A one-of-a-kind relationship: Trump-Kim summit: From fire and fury to love letters, not your traditional relationship
Among the issues on the Trump-Kim agenda:
What exactly is 'denuclearization'
Trump and aides have demanded that North Korea identify and destroy facilities used to make nuclear weapons. Kim, however, believes denuclearization should cover the entire region – including U.S. weapons systems designed to protect ally South Korea.
Economic sanctions standoff
Kim says he will not take major steps toward denuclearization until the United States and other countries lift at least some of the sanctions that have crippled North Korea's economy.
Trump has said sanctions will not be removed until Kim starts to denuclearize, though he has also held out the possibility of other economic assistance.
Chairman Kim realizes, perhaps better than anyone else, that without nuclear weapons, his country could fast become one of the great economic powers anywhere in the World. Because of its location and people (and him), it has more potential for rapid growth than any other nation!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2019
The economy is one of the reasons the U.S. agreed to meet in Vietnam. It hopes North Korea will follow the model of its communist ally, which developed a quasi-capitalist sector after economic reforms in the 1980s.
Follow the money: Trump-Kim summit: Trump hints at rewards for North Korea
Business opportunities: Trump touts North Korea's economic potential.
North Korea-U.S. relations
While neither leader is expected to open an embassy in the other's country, negotiators are discussing "liaison offices" that could be used to improve communications between the two governments.
A formal end to the Korean War
Trump has been open to a treaty to formally end the Korean War, which is technically ongoing even though hostilities were suspended with an armistice in 1953.
Negotiators are working on what aides called a "peace declaration," a non-binding political statement to affirm North and South Korea are no longer at war.
Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert with the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said Kim wants to do just enough to satisfy Trump – "like retiring an exhausted nuclear site he no longer needs" – while retaining a weapons program he depends on for survival.
"Two steps forward and one step back is still progress for North Korea," he said.
Olivia Enos, a policy analyst with the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said she hopes Trump and his team tread cautiously. Give too much, she said, and the U.S. will lose its leverage and get little in return.
"The president's willingness to compromise threatens to undermine the administration's maximum pressure strategy that brought Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table in the first place," she said.
While analysts worried that Trump might give up too much to Kim, Cohen planned to mention the president's Vietnam trip in his testimony.
In a prepared statement first reported late Tuesday by Politico, Cohen cited the deferments Trump received during the Vietnam War.
"'You think I'm stupid, I wasn't going to Vietnam,'" Cohen quotes Trump as saying.
In his prepared testimony, Cohen adds: "I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump-Kim summit Day 1: Nuclear weapons (and Michael Cohen)