President-elect Donald Trump’s team got themselves tied up in knots trying to defend his call with the president of Taiwan, a move that would inevitably be seen as a rebuke to China. Kellyanne Conway insisted the president-elect understood we have one president at a time and did not mean to signal any change in policy. (So was he unaware of the call’s significance?) Reince Priebus tried to downplay the misstep, calling it just a congratulatory call. Vice President-elect Mike Pence also tried to say it was no big deal (a “tempest in a teapot.“) Kellyanne said the same on Sunday.
Of course a flock of would-be staffers and Republicans in Congress hoping to move our policy instantly jumped up to commend the policy, in essence trying to manipulate the president-elect into embracing a policy shift his aides said wasn’t intentional.
One of three things happened:
1. Trump was fully briefed on the history of the one-China policy. His aides laid out several options. He chose a policy and in keeping with that took the call (or placed the call, depending on whom you believe). Kellyanne, Priebus and Pence were trying to manage the fallout from a poor decision that caused more hullabaloo than the team expected.
2. Trump had no idea he was violating any protocol, knows next to nothing about our one-China policy and has no conception that phone calls or his own statements carry meaning in diplomatic parlance. His national security adviser Mike Flynn, if you believe this version, isn’t doing his job, which is to make sure Trump is never surprised or caught unprepared. (Trump’s tweet that it was weird how we could give arms to Taiwan but he shouldn’t take a call might suggest he had no idea there were implications to the call.)
3. Trump’s aides and would-be aides, maybe the very ones whose names popped up in print to defend the call, figured they would move the ball. Hey, he’ll take the call from anyone! Yeah, he’s got no idea what the symbolism is anyway! In this case these people, whose job it is to carry out the president’s decisions and not make him look like a buffoon, failed and should never be allowed in the West Wing. Again, Flynn was asleep at the wheel if he did not realize this was afoot. (The Post’s report on lower-level aides planning for the call supports this theory.)
Maybe there are other explanations or there is some combination of facts at work. Trump’s anti-China tweet storm on Sunday can be read either as evidence he intended along to execute a shift in policy or as a typical Trumpian tactic of doubling down when he makes a mistake.
At any rate, no one outside Trump’s inner circle really knows precisely what happened, but when you have lower-level foreign policy staff plotting a policy shift and top political advisers denying there is one, then something has gone awry. One should appreciate this was poorly handled even if you favor — as we do — some adjustment in our relationship with China. Honestly compels Republicans, Democrats, the media and especially Trump advisers to concede this is no way to run foreign policy. The Trump team should be thankful he is not yet president and the damage is, in the big scheme of things, minor. He cannot get an experienced secretary of state pick in there fast enough to exercise some adult supervision.