For some foreign diplomats, the Trump White House is a troubling enigma
fter nearly nine months of the Trump administration, many of America’s closest allies have concluded a hoped-for “learning curve” they thought would make President Trump a reliable partner is not going to happen.
“The idea that he would inform himself, and things would change, that is no longer operative,” said a top diplomat here.
Instead, they see an administration in which lines of authority and decision-making are unclear, where tweets become policy and hard-won international accords on trade and climate are discarded. The result has been a special kind of challenge for those whose jobs are to advocate for their countries and explain the president and his unconventional ways at home.
Senior diplomats and officials from nearly a dozen countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia expressed a remarkable coincidence of views in interviews over the past several weeks. Asked to describe their thoughts about and relations with the president and his team as the end of Trump’s first year approaches, many described a whirlwind journey beginning with tentative optimism, followed by alarm and finally reaching acceptance that the situation is unlikely to improve.
“We have to adjust to this,” said a second diplomat from a different continent.
Their concerns echo those expressed increasingly in public by Republican lawmakers such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has spoken of administration “chaos,” and on Sunday described the White House under Trump as an “adult day care center” where the president’s behavior must be managed.
Frustrations and fears, building for months, have grown especially intense in the past few weeks following Trump’s bellicose taunting of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his apparent decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the international nuclear deal.
Although foreign diplomats are restrained by the very nature of their jobs from speaking out about the policies and politics of their host governments, it is not unusual for them to trade tips and gossip in the early days of a new administration when information is in short supply and it is unclear which top officials have the most sway with the leader of the free world.
But their perplexing dealings with the Trump administration have become an obsession of late for ambassadors.
“It’s always an undercurrent when we get together,” a third senior diplomat said. “We’re always asking each other, ‘Who do you deal with’ inside the administration? ‘How do you handle’ difficult situations?”
“When somebody actually sees Trump, people immediately flock around. What did you see? What did he say? Was Ivanka there . . . What kind of look was on Kelly’s face?” he said, referring to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. It is, he said, a kind of Kremlinology.
Some diplomats choose to focus on the positive. Estonian Ambassador Lauri Lepik, whose country’s fears of a resurgent Russia on its eastern border are practically existential, praised Vice President Pence’s summer stop in his country. It helped reassure NATO allies after Trump, on an earlier trip to Brussels, had failed to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to alliance mutual defense.
“That was a highly appreciated visit,” Lepik said. “The administration was engaged, and we were in constant contact.”
Others, some of whom had difficulty with the Obama administration, have found a new closeness with the United States. Saudi Arabia, after enduring Obama’s human rights criticism and policy objections, is now a favored Trump nation.
Newly arrived Hungarian Ambassador László Szabó, whose government hews to the nationalistic right, said bilateral trade “is improving nicely and constantly.” His prime minister, Viktor Orban, was the first European leader during last year’s U.S. campaign to say a Trump presidency would be better for Europe — a view widely derided by his European partners.
Afghanistan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, whose government had been alarmed by the Obama administration’s unfulfilled plans to withdraw the vast majority of U.S. troops from the country, said he and his government had regular high-level access to senior Trump administration officials this summer as the debate over the war heated up. “I was at the White House on a daily basis,” he said.
The access did not always bring clarity, especially when it came to figuring out how competing fiefdoms operated inside the West Wing. In August, Afghanistan paid $120,000 for a three-month contract with the Sonoran Policy Group, a lobbying firm with close ties to the White House, to gain “a better understanding of how the inside of the Trump administration works,” Mohib said.
The majority of those interviewed were far more critical, and said they would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity.
Several spoke of the difficulty of determining where power lies within the administration and how decisions are made. “We are still not sure how the equilibrium in this administration is playing out in terms of who is responsible for what,” a senior European said. “Is it the White House? The State Department? Is Defense calling the shots? . . . I’m being clinically analytical, not chiding. This is the situation. We are guessing, sometimes.”
Things have gotten “a bit better” since Kelly’s arrival last summer, one Latin American said. “At least with process, if not policy. It’s clear [Kelly] has influence. But Jared? McMaster? We don’t know if they’re in or out,” he said, referring to Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser.
Some try to posture in a way they think will appeal to Trump and to those around him. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a progressive pragmatist who visited Trump in the White House in June, “tried to sync with him, but it didn’t work,” said Joon Hyung Kim, a professor of international studies at Handong University.
“Moon is really a detail person, and he tried to explain things in detail” regarding defense and economic issues,” Kim said. “I don’t think Trump really liked that.”
“We want to trust Mattis and others,” he said, referring to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, generally considered a moderate buffer for Trump, “but we’re not really sure if they’re 100 percent bulletproof.”
Many of those interviewed said they are often told by administration officials to ignore Trump’s tweets or undiplomatic remarks. They recognize it is a risky game.
“In the business sector, you can be very forceful in negotiations,” said a diplomat whose government has been on the receiving end of Trump’s tweets. “You call each other names all day, then you sit down and have a martini. In foreign policy, there are consequences to the name calling. Damage is done.”
Some foreign diplomats have tried to work around the White House by forging closer relationships with the battered and shrinking Democratic and Republican foreign policy establishment in Congress. Another strategy, particularly on issues related to climate change and trade, has been to work directly with governors, avoiding Washington entirely, several foreign diplomats said.
Others said their leaders, in meetings with Trump, have had to decide whether to take on what one called the president’s “one-sentence, very blunt affirmations.” Asked to give an example, this official recalled a discussion of the Iran nuclear deal in which Trump asserted, as he has before, “Iran is allowed to build a bomb” as soon as the agreement expires.
European signatories to the Iran nuclear deal have given up on trying to change his mind, or to argue the accord’s sunset provision does not give Tehran a pass to restart its nuclear program. Instead, they have directed their attention to persuading Congress not to legislate new sanctions on Iran.
A diplomat whose country has close and cordial relations and no obvious problems with the administration said his government is nonetheless exploring more extensive trade and diplomatic ties with Asia.
“At the beginning,” he said, Trump was “a fascination.” As the months have passed, he said, “all this perplexing noise from Washington, it becomes background noise. And the United States is a bit less important than before.”