Not an overly enthusiastic summit participant, President Donald Trump has come to fashion the yearly gatherings more to his liking: speed dating for deals, with a cast of strongmen (no strongwomen) swapping in and out of the chair across the table.
On Friday and Saturday here, Trump sat for talks with men accused of masterminding election fraud and a grisly murder. He worked to strike a trade deal with the President of a nation imprisoning a million religious minorities in remote camps. And he tweeted an optimistic “meet you there!” message to the despot who’s assassinated underlings with anti-aircraft guns.
Trump’s penchant for dictators has always been a pronounced aspect of his foreign policy, but in Japan he appeared to throw aside attempts at masking it. If there is a Trump foreign policy doctrine – and there is no consensus among experts and analysts that there is – it would most likely center on the pursuit of deals, no matter the dealmakers.
“It’s about relationship. Otherwise, you end up in very bad wars and lots of problems,” Trump explained during a breakfast with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was named last week by the United Nations as a probable orchestrator of the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist who lived in the United States.
With tiny jars of strawberry jam and vases of yellow roses on the table, Trump brushed off a question on whether he would raise Khashoggi’s murder, which was carried out using a bone saw.
“Uh,” Trump said, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat frowning next to him, “thank you very much.”
In Trump’s view, it’s the bad guys who can make the deals worth making, not necessarily the traditional US allies who are bound by legislatures and political concerns that would hamper their ability to negotiate.
With Prince Mohammed, Trump hopes to secure new commitments for purchases of military equipment. And the Middle East peace plan devised by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner depends on financial contributions from the wealthy Gulf monarchies to the Palestinians, a gambit that has drawn deep skepticism.
Those efforts, more than the advancement of human rights or justice for a gruesome murder, are Trump’s stated goals. The US President said later he had raised the Khashoggi matter in private with Prince Mohammed, describing himself as “extremely angry.”
But he defended himself against the notion he only cozies up toward dictators.
“I get along with a lot of people,” he said. “I also get along with people who would be perceived as being very nice.”
Trump’s worldview isn’t new
The realpolitik nature of Trump’s worldview is not new, but in Japan it came into its sharpest relief as the President darted from meeting to meeting with accused murder masterminds, avowed authoritarians and former spies.
Trump hoped to find further realization of his view that only interpersonal skills can resolve the global disputes of the day in his closely watched trade talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
More CNN G20 coverage
Beforehand, Trump himself insisted on a delay to a planned speech by Vice President Mike Pence pegged to the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which was expected to call out China’s troubling human rights and religious freedom record. He was concerned the message might appear discordant with his trade efforts, according to a person familiar with the decision.
Clearing any obstacles toward a trade understanding, Trump found himself with an agreement, albeit one that looked awfully familiar to the understanding he reached with Xi seven months ago, when the two sides agreed to hold off on tariffs as talks proceeded.
Asked after the meeting how it went, the hawkish trade adviser Peter Navarro – an ardent advocate for tariffs who’s irritated more moderate members of Trump’s team – just gave a shrug with both hands.
In Japan, Trump met briefly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he deemed a “fantastic woman.” And he was frequently approached by French President Emmanuel Macron for some intense words, though they did not meet formally.
Instead, Trump’s highest-profile meetings were reserved for leaders who have tended toward authoritarianism.
A date with Kim?
It was due to continue at his next stop in Seoul, when Trump is hoping to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for a handshake at the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
“I just thought of it this morning,” Trump said of his tweet, framing the message to Kim like an email to some distant cousin who lives in a city he’s passing through. “We’ll be at the area.”
Whether it was as spontaneous as Trump made it out to be is doubtful; he told reporters from The Hill newspaper earlier in the week he planned a visit to the DMZ but the White House asked the outlet to delay publication citing security concerns.
Planned or not, the potential encounter with Kim comes without the back-and-forth negotiations that preceded Trump’s earlier two summits with the leader, both of which have so far failed to rid the country of its nuclear weapons. In the end, the Singapore and Hanoi summits were more about friendship than hard-fought dealmaking anyway, and the DMZ handshake doesn’t appear any different.
Trump, who has sought to imbue his diplomatic efforts with drama and intrigue, was eager to assess the reaction in Osaka.
“Have you seen my tweet?” Trump asked South Korean President Moon Jae-in in the leaders’ coffee lounge, according to Moon’s office. When he responded affirmatively, Trump gave a thumbs up.
With other leaders, Trump employed hyperbolic congratulations for those who’d recently won elections – just as some of his own early foreign-courters used outsized compliments of his upset victory in their efforts to woo him.
“We’re with a gentleman who had one of the greatest election wins anywhere in the world,” Trump said next to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right President who’s adopted Trump’s populist (and, in Bolsonaro’s case, misogynistic and homophobic) rhetoric.
“You did indeed have a landslide election. That was a great election,” Trump told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, praising him for “pulling everybody together” despite accusations he’s given more power to a Hindu majority at the expense of Muslims and other minorities.
An eye on 2020
Electioneering is never far from Trump’s mind, particularly as he nears his own reelection battle. He arrived in Japan pledging to remain focused on the work at hand – an intentional attempt to project a presidential air while his rivals were squabbling among themselves back home.
Those assurances didn’t last long; Trump deemed the first night of the Democratic debates “BORING!” in a tweet and later told Germany’s Merkel that, after passing by a television set in the G20 airing the event, he wasn’t impressed. How or why a television was airing a US political debate backstage at the G20 isn’t clear; it’s seems more likely that Trump’s aides arranged for the broadcast to sate his interest in his rivals.
He couldn’t offer election congratulations to the Saudi Crown Prince, who achieved his powerful post through birth and will never face an election. But he found room to praise him nonetheless for the reforms that once captured the world’s attention.
“I think especially what you’ve done for women – I’m seeing what’s happening; it’s like a revolution in a very positive way,” Trump said.
While some new rights for Saudi women have been secured, including the ability of women to obtain drivers’ licenses, strict guardianship laws still restrict the rights of women in the country. Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and senior adviser, seemed more pointed when she provided notice during a session on women’s empowerment that those issues would be on the agenda even with repressive regimes.
“The United States looks forward to working with all of those here today, including Saudi Arabia which will be hosting the next G20 presidency, to advance these important and critical goals,” she said.
There’s no other leader that has intrigued Trump like Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose efforts to elect him Trump has denied, despite assessments from US intelligence agencies. Trump has spent the first years of his presidency angrily consumed by the investigations into the Russian election meddling, but this week seemed in a lighter mood.
After greeting each other like buddies, Trump smirked when asked whether he would warn Putin not to meddle again.
“Yes, of course I will,” Trump responded, turning to Putin to wag a finger, “Don’t meddle in the election.”
Earlier, Trump employed a favored phrase to make some small talk as he awaited the start of the meeting.
“Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do,” he told Putin, who objected: “We also have.”
In some ways, Trump’s behavior appeared designed to inspire outrage in his opponents rather than appease Putin. After all, the more Trump’s congressional rivals view him as overly accommodating to Russia, the more likely they are to take matters like sanctions into their own hands – putting Putin in an awkward position as he works to cultivate Trump.
A study of contrasts came last Friday, when the outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May met herself with Putin for the first time since a Russian poisoning effort in Britain killed two UK citizens.
“Stone-faced” would be too warm a term to describe May’s visage as she met Putin for a photo-op. Starting ahead without catching Putin’s eye, the prime minister’s mouth turned downward and her arm barely extended past her hip as she forced Putin to reach out to her for a handshake.