WASHINGTON — Less than a year ago, President Trump was savaging Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as a “madman” and murderer of his own people, branding him as “Little Rocket Man” for his nuclear testing exploits and poking fun at his portly stature.
Early Thursday morning, a jubilant Mr. Trump described how Mr. Kim had been “excellent” to three American prisoners he had agreed to release from a prison in North Korea, and “nice” to free them so early — a “wonderful thing” that showed Mr. Kim’s desire to end his country’s isolation. The comments came two weeks after Mr. Trump praised Mr. Kim as “very honorable” in discussions about a coming summit meeting.
The head-snapping rhetorical turn has accompanied a major shift in the dynamic between the United States and North Korea as Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim prepare for the unpredecented meeting next month in Singapore. It also underscores the president’s black-and-white worldview — a stark formulation in which there is good or evil, friend or enemy, and not much in between — that has opened him to criticism that he has been too quick to embrace a brutal leader as a worthy negotiating partner.
“We’re starting off on a new footing,” Mr. Trump said at Joint Base Andrews, in Maryland, where he had arranged for a showy middle-of-the-night arrival for the prisoners to be broadcast live on television. He added, “There’s never been a relationship like this.”
Critics pounced on the remarks as evidence that the president was in the process of being duped and outplayed by Mr. Kim.
“We can’t be fooled into giving the North Korean regime credit for returning Americans that never should have been detained in the first place,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “It is so troubling to hear President Trump say that Kim Jong-un treated the Americans excellently.”
Over-the-top messaging, both positive and negative, is nothing new for Mr. Trump, whose 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” argued that “bravado” was crucial to salesmanship.
“People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” the book says. “I call it truthful hyperbole.”
As president, Mr. Trump has married that style with a distinctly personal approach to foreign policy, in which he appears to have utmost confidence in his ability to win over his counterparts around the world with flattery, shows of respect and plays to ego