Donald Trump, After Fits and Starts, Focuses on Foreign Policy

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President-elect Donald J. Trump embarked on one of the rituals of the American presidency on Thursday, meeting in New York with the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, as he continued his fitful adjustment to the protocols of high-level diplomacy.

“I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence,” Mr. Abe said after the meeting at Trump Tower. He described the 90-minute encounter as “really cordial.”

The visit with Mr. Abe came after 32 congratulatory phone calls from foreign leaders in the nine days since Mr. Trump won the election. None seem to have adhered to established diplomatic practice, in which the State Department choreographs the sequence of the calls and provides policy guidance and translating services.

On Thursday night, the State Department said it was finally in contact with Mr. Trump’s emissaries. But until now, they had not requested any briefings, nor had the president-elect’s calls — including with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and other adversaries of the United States — been routed through the State Department, as is customary, according to a department official.
Mr. Trump’s aides did not respond to questions about whether the president-elect had used his own interpreter in the meeting with Mr. Abe and calls with other leaders, or whether he had relied on interpreters provided by them.“The order that the calls are done in seems like a silly protocol issue. But it’s one that people really think about,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former top aide to the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice. “They are taking messages away from that, whether you think it’s important or not.”

Mr. Abe’s visit — Mr. Trump’s first with a foreign leader since the election — came on a day when the president-elect was steeped in foreign policy. He met with former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger to discuss “events and issues around the world,” ranging from Russia and China to Iran and the European Union, according to the transition team. He also had a meeting with Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States.

He met Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and the top officer at the military’s Cyber Command, which gave him his first in-depth exposure to the government’s surveillance abilities.

And he met with Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff who has been a longtime informal adviser to Hillary Clinton and a mentor to Gen. David H. Petraeus, as well as a prime architect of the Iraq troop surge in the George W. Bush administration.

“I was impressed, frankly, for a couple of reasons,” General Keane said in a telephone interview. “One, by how personable he is, and two, by his intellectual curiosity about national security events. Most presidential candidates don’t have an in-depth knowledge of national security issues. But he asked excellent questions.”

General Keane declined to discuss the advice he had given Mr. Trump. But he said the new president’s greatest challenge would be to maintain America’s leadership in a world in which radical Islamic militancy was threatening to metastasize into a “global jihadist movement,” and hostile powers like Russia, China and Iran were seeking regional dominance.During the campaign, Mr. Trump called into question the network of security alliances that the United States had maintained since World War II, saying the country’s partners in Europe and Asia were not paying their fair share for the American umbrella of protection.

Few allies were as rattled by Mr. Trump’s campaign statements as Japan. At one point, he suggested that Japan and South Korea consider acquiring nuclear weapons to protect themselves.

In the days leading to Thursday’s meeting, officials from the Japanese Foreign and Trade Ministries were urging Mr. Abe to take a tough line with Mr. Trump on the value of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a huge trade deal that Mr. Trump opposes — and the countries’ defense alliance, which Mr. Trump has said Japan must contribute more money toward, according to Michael J. Green, a former official in the Bush administration with close ties to Japan.But Mr. Abe appeared to reject that advice, preferring to focus on cultivating a personal relationship with Mr. Trump. Some Japan experts speculated that Mr. Abe was concerned about getting off on the right foot with Mr. Trump because when the Japanese leader traveled to New York in September for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, he met with Hillary Clinton, who was then the favorite in the presidential race, but not Mr. Trump.

“The Japanese prime minister has done very well with strongmen like Modi and Putin,” said Mr. Green, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and the Russian president.

“The question the Japanese side still cannot understand is what a Trump administration will actually do on Asia,” Mr. Green added.Dispelling such confusion is one reason for the choreographed nature of the first calls made to leaders. In 2008, Mr. Obama’s transition team had a plan for the president-elect. On the morning of Election Day, Ms. Rice, who later became Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, described the plan in an email to two of his other advisers.

“In anticipation of the many calls from foreign leaders, we have prepared a list of priority calls to return and the briefing memos,” Ms. Rice wrote at 9:13 a.m. “Our view is that he should return the calls through the State Dpt. Ops Center, which is comparatively apolitical and professional, has translation capabilities and can assist as desired with note-taking.”

The Ops Center serves as a giant switchboard for the government, providing interpreters as needed to ensure that American officials are confident their words are being translated accurately. Using government switchboards can also help prevent hoaxes. During the 2008 campaign, two French comedians pretending to be the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, pranked Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, two days before the election.

That call got through despite the fact that advisers to Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, had a policy of never letting Mr. McCain take a call from a purported foreign leader without first checking out the telephone number with the State Department, according to a person familiar with that campaign’s operations.

In Mr. Trump’s case, it has been catch-as-catch-can.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia reached out to Mr. Trump early in the week after getting his phone number from Greg Norman, a professional golfer, apparently becoming the second world leader to congratulate him after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Mr. Turnbull beat Theresa May, the British prime minister.

In the case of Mr. Trump’s brief conversation with the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, it was conducted in English, though the president-elect said to Mr. Renzi, “ciao.”

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