Na­tions feel cut off from the Trump White House

With few am­bas­sadors and an ane­mic State Depart­ment, for­eign en­voys re­sort to novel ways to con­nect.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracy Wilkin­son

WASH­ING­TON — The State Depart­ment long has been the key to Amer­i­can diplo­macy abroad, while lead­ers in for­eign cap­i­tals used well-trod­den chan­nels at Foggy Bottom to con­tact their coun­ter­parts in Wash­ing­ton.

But un­der Pres­i­dent Trump’s ap­proach to for­eign pol­icy, that has changed.

“There’s just no one to talk to at the State Depart­ment,” said one South­east Asian am­bas­sador, say­ing the depart­ment ap­pears ir­rel­e­vant for all but mi­nor diplo­matic is­sues. The diplo­mat asked not to be named ex­press­ing his frus­tra­tion.

With only a hand­ful of se­nior State Depart­ment po­si­tions filled af­ter Trump’s five months in of­fice, and no reg­u­lar me­dia brief­ings there to ex­plain his for­eign pol­icy, the chal­lenge for for­eign gov­ern­ments is ex­ac­er­bated by a dearth of U.S. am­bas­sadors.

Of the most im­por­tant po­si­tions, only the U.S. en­voy to China, for­mer Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, has been con­firmed by the Se­nate. On Fri­day, the White House moved to fill an­other cru­cial va­cancy, for­mally nom­i­nat­ing New York Jets owner Woody Johnson as U.S. am­bas­sador to Bri­tain.

How­ever, the White House has yet to sub­mit sev­eral other key nom­i­na­tions. The tu­mult has left al­lies and ad­ver­saries alike scram­bling to find novel ways to get the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ear.

Early on, Den­mark tried us­ing its na­tional beauty

pageant as a back­door chan­nel to the White House. It asked its con­tes­tant whether she had any high­level con­tacts, given that Trump used to own the Miss Uni­verse pageant. As far as is known, she didn’t.

Some em­bassies have staged high-pro­file re­cep­tions or rented suites at the Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel in Wash­ing­ton, less than a mile from the White House, in what crit­ics say is a con­spic­u­ous ef­fort to gain Trump’s no­tice.

The gov­ern­ment of Saudi Ara­bia, in par­tic­u­lar, paid $270,000 to the ho­tel be­tween Novem­ber and Fe­bru­ary, ac­cord­ing to fil­ings with the Jus­tice Depart­ment un­der the For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act.

That has prompted sev­eral law­suits al­leg­ing Trump is prof­it­ing off his pres­i­dency.

“Never in the his­tory of this coun­try have we had a pres­i­dent with these kinds of ex­ten­sive busi­ness en­tan­gle­ments or a pres­i­dent who re­fused to ad­e­quately dis­tance them­selves from their hold­ings,” Karl Racine, at­tor­ney gen­eral for the District of Columbia, told re­porters this month when he filed a law­suit with Mary­land al­leg­ing that Saudi Ara­bia and Kuwait are try­ing to gain fa­vor at the White House by pay­ing top dol­lar at Trump prop­er­ties.

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment has tried an­other route to im­prove re­la­tions with the White House.

Even as Trump railed dur­ing the cam­paign against Mex­i­cans as rapists and crim­i­nals who sneaked across the bor­der to at­tack Amer­i­cans or steal their jobs, Mex­ico’s then-fi­nance sec­re­tary, Luis Vide­garay, was in touch with one of Trump’s top ad­vi­sors.

Vide­garay, who is close to Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto, es­tab­lished a friend­ship with Trump’s son-in-law and ad­vi­sor Jared Kush­ner, ac­cord­ing to diplo­mats and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials.

Know­ing how un­pop­u­lar Trump was in Mex­ico, Vide­garay didn’t tell the for­eign sec­re­tary at the time what he was do­ing, they said.

It back­fired when Vide­garay en­gi­neered a Trump visit to Mex­ico City in Au­gust dur­ing the cam­paign. Trump again in­sisted Mex­ico would pay for a bor­der wall, em­bar­rass­ing Peña Ni­eto, who had said they hadn’t dis­cussed it, and hi­jacked a news con­fer­ence in the pres­i­den­tial palace by call­ing only on Amer­i­can re­porters and ig­nor­ing the Mex­i­cans.

Peña Ni­eto’s pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings plum­meted, and Vide­garay was forced to re­sign.

But Vide­garay con­tin­ued meet­ing with Kush­ner, and in Jan­uary he was named for­eign sec­re­tary, mak­ing his con­tacts more for­mal. The two coun­tries have worked closely in re­cent months.

When Trump threat­ened to junk the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, as he had vowed on the cam­paign trail, Kush­ner and Vide­garay hastily ar­ranged for Peña Ni­eto to call him. Canada’s prime min­is­ter, Justin Trudeau, also tele­phoned, and Trump backed down.

Mex­ico still some­times ap­pears in Trump’s crosshairs. On Thurs­day, he tweeted that Mex­ico “was just ranked the sec­ond dead­li­est coun­try in the world, af­ter only Syria.”

He added: “We will BUILD THE WALL!” Mex­i­can of­fi­cials have said the re­port Trump cited, is­sued by the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies, a Bri­tish think tank, was mis­lead­ing.

Is­rael’s prime min­is­ter, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, also turned to Kush­ner, whom he has known for years. Their per­sonal ties have helped pro­pel the pres­i­dent’s sonin-law into the un­likely po­si­tion of Mid­dle East peace ne­go­tia­tor.

The two met last week in Jerusalem, a fol­low-up to Trump’s visit to the re­gion last month.

In Saudi Ara­bia, King Sal­man abruptly picked Mo­hammed bin Sal­man as heir to the throne last week, leapfrog­ging over the cur­rent crown prince in a twist to the king­dom’s dy­nas­tic pol­i­tics that may be tied to Kush­ner’s role.

The two, both in their 30s, forged a friend­ship af­ter the 2016 elec­tion, shar­ing din­ners and ex­chang­ing phone calls. They played a key role in set­ting up Trump’s suc­cess­ful visit to Riyadh last month, where the royal fam­ily treated the Trumps like roy­alty and Trump of­fered gush­ing praise for the au­to­cratic gov­ern­ment.

By then, the me­dia had dubbed Kush­ner and MBS, as he is widely known, the “two princes.”

“MBS quickly latched on to Jared Kush­ner as a chan­nel to the White House,” said F. Gre­gory Gause, head of the in­ter­na­tional af­fairs depart­ment at Texas A&M Univer­sity and long­time ob­server of Saudi pol­i­tics.

Trump is hardly the first pres­i­dent to run ma­jor parts of his for­eign pol­icy from the White House.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s aides con­ducted the se­cret diplo­macy that led to restora­tion of diplo­matic ties with Cuba in 2015, by­pass­ing the State Depart­ment. And at least in his first term, he picked spe­cial en­voys to con­duct pol­icy for the Mid­dle East and re­la­tions with Afghanistan and Pak­istan.

But in Obama’s sec­ond term, Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry helped lead the ne­go­ti­a­tions that led to the 2015 land­mark ac­cord to curb Iran’s nu­clear weapons ca­pa­bil­ity, ar­guably Obama’s most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment in for­eign af­fairs.

Trump meets fre­quently with Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son and seems to value his coun­sel. But Trump over­rode Tiller­son’s con­cerns when he an­nounced plans to with­draw from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord aimed at re­duc­ing global warm­ing.

Evan Vucci As­so­ci­ated Press

MEX­ICO, Is­rael and per­haps Saudi Ara­bia have turned to Jared Kush­ner to get in.

Saudi Press Agency

DON­ALD TRUMP with Saudi King Sal­man, cen­ter, in Riyadh last month. The gov­ern­ment of Saudi Ara­bia paid $270,000 to Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel in Wash­ing­ton be­tween Novem­ber and Fe­bru­ary.

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