President Donald Trump has been holed up in a series of rapid-fire briefing sessions on his upcoming 12-day, five-country tour through Asia — an effort the White House hopes will help avoid the kind of diplomatic snafus that have dogged his presidency.
The trip — Trump’s longest yet — comes at a tense moment in Asia, with the threat of the North Korea nuclear program looming. But some of Trump’s advisers believe the time away from Washington will offer the president, who leaves Friday, a brief respite from the Russia-related revelations that have consumed him in recent days.
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Trump’s top advisers — including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — have met with the president in recent days to go over details of the trip, including in an hourlong briefing Friday in the Oval Office, according to administration officials. Top aides have sought to keep the briefings short to avoid overloading the president with details but have scheduled dozens of them to plan public remarks and outline what he should say about North Korea on defense and China on trade.
“We’ve kind of tried to do it in pieces so it’s easy to keep up with,” said another administration official, adding that National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Defense Secretary James Mattis have also briefed the president.
There are numerous ways Trump’s team could run into protocol problems in Asia, where many countries place a premium on proper behavior, said former U.S. officials who specialized in the subject.
The rules cover everything from what colors to wear (avoid all white, because it signifies sorrow) to the proper way to accept a business card (with both hands, look the giver in the eye and never put the card in your back pocket).
But there are limits on how far an American official — especially the president — should go in adhering to cultural sensitivities. For instance, “We don’t bow,” said Donald Ensenat, who served as chief of protocol under President George W. Bush.
Trump’s interactions with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the trip will face special scrutiny, especially in other Asian countries trying to balance their relationships with both Washington and Beijing.
Administration officials said Trump is eager to meet face-to-face again with Xi, a leader with whom he has built a close relationship. The meeting comes at the height of Xi’s power. The Chinese Communist Party recently granted him a new five-year term and did not name a future successor, raising the possibility Xi could stay in power even longer.
But Trump’s recent effusive praise of Xi has raised eyebrows among the White House’s conservative allies, who wonder which Trump will show up to Asia: the hard-charging iconoclast who declared during the campaign that China was “raping” the United States or the smooth-talking deal-maker who sees hope for improved relations.
“It’s my raging nightmare that he’s going to congratulate Xi on his ‘reelection,’” said Derek Scissors, a China expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Trump administration has already made a series of rookie mistakes.
This past summer, a White House news release referred to Xi as the leader of the “Republic of China” instead of the proper “People’s Republic of China,” a diplomatic blunder for which Beijing said the White House apologized.
The “Republic of China” is what Taiwan calls itself. And Taiwan’s relationship with China is another thorny issue Trump may want to avoid raising, especially after his decision to speak directly to Taiwan’s leader during the transition last December prompted emergency meetings between China’s foreign minister and Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, in New York.
The upcoming trip — which includes stops in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines as well as China — will put pressure on Trump’s divided advisers to better define what some experts say is a muddled Asia strategy. And it will force the president to navigate a nuanced set of policy issues that have long divided U.S. allies in the region.
White House aides expect the trip to focus on two major themes: the threat of North Korea and trade. Trump hopes to show a united front in opposition to North Korean aggression, according to an administration official, who said the president’s public remarks on the trip will seek to serve as a “reminder that it’s not just us, that the world opposes them.”
Trump’s advisers have clashed for months over the specifics of his Asia strategy, most notably when it comes to trade, even as the National Security Council is in the midst of crafting a more cohesive China strategy.
Hard-line China critics like White House trade adviser Peter Navarro and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon have been pushing back against more moderate aides, who have warned against imposing steep tariffs on Chinese exports.
The news that Navarro will not be going on the trip has sparked concern among China hawks, who view Navarro’s status in the administration as a signal that Trump will be too soft on China during the trip, a move that they believe could play into Xi’s hands just days after he was elevated to the same status as Mao Zedong.
“The biggest risk is not that he’s going to say something that spoils the U.S.-China relationship, but that he’s going to be so fawning and uncritical of China and Xi Jinping that it raises alarms in the rest of the region about a grand bargain between the U.S. and China,” said Ely Ratner, who advised former Vice President Joe Biden on Asia.
After savaging China on the campaign trail for months, Trump invited Xi to his Mar-a-Lago resort in April in a bid to build a better relationship with the Chinese leader. The two men hit it off, and although Trump has criticized China for not doing enough to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, he has heaped praise on Xi.
“He’s a powerful man. I happen to think he’s a very good person,” Trump said of Xi during an interview with Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs last week, adding later, “People say we have the best relationship of any president-president, because he’s called president also,” he went on to say. “Now some people might call him the king of China. But he’s called president.”
People close to Trump said the president’s apparent embrace of Xi stems from his affinity for aggressive, even authoritarian international leaders.
Few world leaders can get through initial visits to Asia without some screw-up, badysts said.
Tillerson, for example, traveled to China earlier this year and wound up parroting well-known Chinese talking points, such as the need for “mutual respect,” that some Chinese cast as Washington agreeing it would not interfere in Beijing’s core interests.
“People who are inexperienced with China often get played in this way,” Scissors said.
But the U.S., too, can use talking points to its advantage.
The Trump administration has in recent weeks emphasized the term “Indo-Pacific” to describe the region, as opposed to the more traditional “Asia-Pacific.” Though not entirely a new approach — Obama-era officials used “Indo-Pacific” on occasion — it sends a less-than-subtle signal to China about America’s desire to partner with India as that populous nation also rises.
Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said it will be important for Trump to distinguish between what counts as protocol and what’s a power move.
“Too often we’re too solicitous of what Chinese define as protocol when they’re just going to shape the perceptions of the trip to their advantage, both for their people and also for the region,” Blumenthal said. “I’d be very polite and very civil, but I certainly wouldn’t act like we’re going to the Middle Kingdom to pay homage to the emperor.”
The president will face complicated situations beyond Beijing.
During his visit to the Philippines, Trump will have to strike a careful balance between underscoring the importance of the U.S. relationship with the nation and distancing himself from the extrajudicial killings blessed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as he wages a war on drugs.
Trump also could be thrust into the middle of a tense dispute between Japan and South Korea over so-called comfort women, the term for the women and girls who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers badually during World War II. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said Japan has not done enough to take legal responsibility over the issue, rejecting a 2015 agreement between the two countries.
“That could be a disaster,” an outside adviser to Trump said.
The president’s advisers acknowledge privately that Trump’s unpredictable behavior could complicate the trip in ways big and small, from potentially escalating the crisis on the Korean Peninsula to flouting complicated rules of procedure.
“You never know what he’ll say,” an administration official said, adding that the grueling schedule could heighten the risk of mistakes. An outside adviser to the administration concurred: “The potential for error is huge.”
And on a trip as long as this one, the whole delegation, not just the president, needs to remain alert because a PR disaster can take place at any level, said Capricia Marshall, who served as the U.S. chief of protocol under President Barack Obama.
“In protocol, you are showing respect to another’s culture,” Marshall said. “Frankly, the objective is to create a better relationship.”
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.