Politics & Government

Trump passes on State Department’s help in first dealings with world leaders

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to a campaign rally, Monday, Nov. 7, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. AP

Donald Trump’s first interactions with heads of state as president-elect have bypassed the State Department’s help with background briefings and logistics.

The president-elect met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for 90 minutes in Trump Tower on Thursday, his first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since the election.

“I am convinced that Mr. Trump is a leader whom I can have great confidence in,” Abe said after the meeting.

It was an important meeting for Japan, which counts on the U.S. as a crucial ally. Ahead of the meeting, Abe called the U.S.-Japan alliance “the axis of Japan’s diplomacy and security.”

But as late as Wednesday evening, Japanese officials did not know where or when the hastily arranged meeting would take place, who would be in the room, or even who to contact for more information, according to reports. Trump’s transition team did not reach out to the State Department for help planning the visit of the foreign leader or any background briefing, the agency said.

“We, of course, stand ready to assist the president-elect’s team in any way that they deem fit. But…there’s been no outreach to date,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a briefing Wednesday.

The State Department is “willing, ready, and able to provide context if it is desired,” he said.

Briefing materials for presidents and presidents-elect are standard practice to avoid any diplomatic blunders when dealing with foreign leaders.

On a call with reporters on Thursday, Trump’s transition team said the president-elect has taken phone calls from 32 world leaders since his election. RNC spokesman Sean Spicer waved off concerns about these calls being received on unsecured lines, insisting that "appropriate precautions" were being taken.

The lack of coordination with the State Department has been apparent to foreign leaders anxious to talk to Trump, some of whom were reportedly blindly dialing into Trump Tower to reach him.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was able to get in touch with Trump by cold-calling his personal cell phone through a number provided by champion Australian golfer Greg Norman.

In other cases, it has been the lack of usual protocol that has bewildered foreign officials.

“If you travel to the U.S. you should let me know,” Trump told British Prime Minister Theresa May in an unusually casual pseudo-invitation that raised eyebrows in London, according to a leaked transcript reported by the Guardian.

It is not surprising that Trump would pass on the State Department’s help. When he received intelligence briefings as a presidential candidate he repeatedly refused to accept the judgment of national security officials that Russia was trying to meddle in the U.S. election by hacking files from Democratic National Committee computers.

Trump’s transition team said his own advisors prepared him for the meeting with the Japanese prime minister.

During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged to make allies pay more for assistance from U.S. forces, alarming Abe and other Asian leaders, and suggested that Japan and South Korea should obtain their own nuclear weapons. The businessman also vowed to rip up trade deals including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Abe had supported despite strong domestic opposition.

"If somebody attacks Japan, we have to immediately go and start World War III, okay? If we get attacked, Japan doesn't have to help us,” Trump said at a campaign rally last December in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “Somehow, that doesn't sound so fair."

However, one of Abe’s top aides reportedly said Thursday that members of Trump’s transition team told the prime minister that he should not take his comments on the campaign trail literally.

Trump’s transition office did not provide a readout of their meeting. Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway said it was out of respect for current President Barack Obama.

"I think it's a much more informal meeting than all of that since we have a current president and commander and chief,” she told CBS on Thursday morning.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen