May 11, 2018

Inside Trump's shock and brawl strategy with foreign leaders

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

President Trump isn't afraid to punch on foreign turf, even after getting the red carpet.

The big picture: As the White House prepares for the summit with North Korea in Singapore on June 12 ("a once unimaginable encounter," the N.Y. Times calls it), we've put together a look at President Trump handles foreign leaders when the doors are closed:

  • Trump wound up U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer and let him go to town in Beijing when meeting with President Xi Jinping and a whole bunch of Chinese representatives in November.
  • In fact, Trump egged Lighthizer on. POTUS asked Lighthizer leading questions at the table in the bilateral meeting, which included Xi and the U.S. and Chinese delegations.
  • Trump: "Bob, why don't you walk them all through what our trade deficit is and [how] all these dialogues have produced nothing? ... Take them through the history." Lighthizer was all too happy to do it.

Trump likes to walk into a meeting with a head of state and throw out the protocol, which he believes throws rivals off balance.

  • Trump operates almost purely on gut instinct. "He never wanted to be briefed all that much before these foreign leader meetings," a former senior administration official said. "He was annoyed when [former national security adviser H.R.] McMaster would come in and say here’s what we need to do and give him note cards and all the information."
  • "Trump lives by improvisation," said another source who has seen Trump at close quarters in foreign leader meetings. "He believes he doesn’t need to prepare, that he performs best when he flies by the seat of his pants and stays flexible. He believes this approach has always worked for him in business and so far at least, politics."

Trump will get awkwardly tough with leaders after showering them with praise in public only hours earlier:

  • That happened in his recent meeting with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe. Trump took him to task on trade and was very aggressive, said a source with direct knowledge of the meeting.
  • "He just has no aversion to awkwardness," said another source who's sat with Trump in meetings with foreign leaders. "Most people, even if they wanted to make a point, they’d do it in a way that the other person isn’t flailing out there."

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