Diplo­mats re­signed to life with Trump

Many of Amer­ica’s clos­est al­lies have con­cluded a hoped-for “learn­ing curve” is not going to hap­pen.

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - Front Page - By Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe

WASHINGTON — After nearly 10 months of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, many of Amer­ica’s clos­est al­lies have con­cluded a hoped-for “learn­ing curve” they be­lieved would make Pres­i­dent Don­ald 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.

In­stead, they see an ad­min­is­tra­tion in which lines of author­ity and de­ci­sion­mak­ing 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 is to ad­vo­cate here 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 last 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 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 Sen. 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 re­cently after Trump’s han­dling of North Korea.

While 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 has be­come an ob­ses­sion of late for am­bas­sadors.

“It’s al­ways an un­der­cur­rent when we get to­gether,” said a third se­nior diplo­mat. “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 Kelly. It is, he said, a kind of Krem­li­nol­ogy.

Some diplo­mats choose to fo­cus on the pos­i­tive.

Es­to­nian Am­bas­sador Kairi Saar-Isop, whose coun­try’s fears of a resur­gent Rus­sia on its east­ern bor­der are prac­ti­cally ex­is­ten­tial, praised Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence’s sum­mer stop in his coun­try. It helped to 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,” Saar-Isop said. “The ad­min­is­tra­tion was en­gaged, and we were in con­stant con­tact.”

Oth­ers, some of whom had dif­fi­culty with the for­mer 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.

Afghanistan Am­bas­sador Ham­du­lah 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 high-level ac­cess to 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.

The ma­jor­ity of those in­ter­viewed were far more crit­i­cal, and said they would speak can­didly only on 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,” said a se­nior Euro­pean. “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, said one Latin Amer­i­can. “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-in­law Jared Kush­ner and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national se­cu­rity ad­viser.

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 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 Democrat 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, sev­eral for­eign diplo­mats said.

A diplo­mat whose coun­try has cor­dial re­la­tions with the ad­min­is­tra­tion said his gov­ern­ment is 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.”

DAN KIT­WOOD/GETTY

On the world stage in May: Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk, Bri­tain’s Theresa May, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Ger­many’s Angela Merkel, Ja­pan’s Shinzo Abe, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, France’s Em­manuel Macron, Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker and Italy’s Paolo Gen­tiloni.

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