Just maybe, the extraordinary scene that unfolded in the dead of night on an airfield outside Washington early Thursday is the start of something truly historic.
President Donald Trump welcomed home three American prisoners from North Korea, citing their release as proof that his diplomacy with the isolated state is delivering. In what must have been a surreal experience, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk — who were only released from custody on Wednesday — were suddenly plunged into a media circus.
“I think you probably broke the all-time in history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning,” Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews as he stood alongside the freed prisoners.
While history suggests skepticism is warranted over North Korea’s apparent opening, and Trump will face accusations of taking a premature victory lap, Thursday’s events nevertheless pointed to a moment of rare hope in the world’s last Cold War standoff.
By securing the prisoners’ release the Trump administration could claim a genuine foreign policy victory that further built confidence ahead of his looming historic planned summit with Kim Jong Un.
Other groups of US prisoners have been freed from North Korea over the years — often after visits by luminaries like former President Bill Clinton. But the accelerating diplomacy means this time there is the prospect that a more permanent opening could be possible after seven decades of hostility.
The welcoming ceremony also offered the world a picture of Trump as a peacemaker, after he was widely condemned abroad for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday.
Ever eager to command the spotlight, even at 3 a.m. ET, Trump strode out to the blue-and-white liveried government jet that carried the men home and was picked out of the night sky with floodlights and parked in front of a huge American flag.
After a few minutes inside, the President and first lady Melania Trump stood at the top of the aircraft steps with the three men, providing a photo to greet Americans as they awoke.
Trump said it was “nice” of the North Korean dictator, who presides over gulags and repression, to let the men go before the summit, which is expected to happen within weeks, possibly in Singapore.
He said the gesture was a sign that the thaw in US-North Korean relations was ahead of schedule
“We are starting off on a new footing — I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful. A lot of very good things have happened,” Trump said.
“I really think he wants to do something and bring the country into the real world,” he added, referring to Kim, whom he once blasted as “Little Rocket Man.”
“It’s never been taken this far, there has never been a relationship like this. I really think a lot of progress has been made,” Trump said.
The United States has made several agreements to freeze the North’s nuclear program over the last 25 years, but the deals have always foundered amid cheating by Pyongyang and mistrust between the two sides.
Often, Andrews has been a scene of tragedy — it was where President John F. Kennedy’s body was returned on the night of his assassination. More recently, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton looked on as the remains of slain US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens were returned home.
But early Thursday, the sense of optimism and symbolism approached euphoric levels.
Trump is, however, also taking a risk — by making such a splash of the prisoners’ return he will be accused by critics of exploiting them as props for a presidency in crisis.
He also raised the stakes to massive levels ahead of the summit in a way that belies the complex and uncertain path towards his goal of convincing North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
There was one moment of discord — when Trump characteristically slammed The New York Times which he accused of reporting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had gone “missing” when he was headed to North Korea to get the prisoners.
In fact, the paper said that European diplomats were “perplexed” that they couldn’t reach Pompeo in the run-up to Trump’s announcement on Iran.
Many experts believe that Trump deserves praise for turning his inflammatory rhetoric and strategy of maximum pressure into an opening for a summit that has the potential to ease one of the world’s most dangerous standoffs.
There is now no doubt that the administration is comprehensively laying a bet on Kim’s willingness to change: for instance, Pompeo was pictured in a chummy photo-op with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.
But by personalizing the initiative, the administration is putting Trump’s prestige on the line in a way that could backfire if the talks fail. Lost in the euphoria early Thursday was the reality that North Korea seized the Americans to use as pawns in its wider diplomatic chess game with the US.