Senior White House officials tell me that this consistency is evident not in an ideological sense but rather in how the administration is implementing Trump’s campaign promises. The idea is to take what Trump has said on issues and work with senior officials and foreign partners systematically to translate those statements into real policies. The pattern goes like this:
Senior cabinet officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson take a set of Trump foreign policy campaign ideas on the road to discuss them with allies and partners. They help massage what were often broad and poorly understood campaign statements into policies or projects that both sides can agree to and work on together, gaining buy-in and finding overlap between the rhetoric and the reality.
Then, Vice President Pence follows up with similar action, traveling to those same places and often meeting with the same leaders. He reinforces what the cabinet officials have worked out with foreign governments and elevates the plans to the White House level. Finally, Trump comes in.
A senior White House official described the pattern to me as “building a structure.” Trump is “utilizing a lot of the key players in his cabinet and his vice president to lay the groundwork so that when he comes in, he’s ultimately the closer,” the official said.
First the pattern played out in Europe, where Mattis, Tillerson and then Pence each visited in February and laid down markers on issues such as NATO burden-sharing and counterterrorism, repeating Trump’s criticisms but in a more constructive way. After these senior officials worked it out with NATO leaders, Trump formally endorsed their product. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Trump in Washington this month and the pair announced agreement on the way forward.
A similar pattern is also playing out in East Asia. Mattis visited first in February. Tillerson went in March. Pence followed in April. All hit the same themes: burden-sharing, alliance reinforcement and a tough stance on North Korea. While Pence was in the region, he announced Trump will build on those interactions by visiting Asia and attending multiple multilateral meetings later this year.
Pence, in an interview last week in Tokyo, told me that the popular analysis, that Trump is changing his foreign policy views and that the Trump foreign policy is “normalizing,” is wrong. Trump did not change his position on NATO, NATO changed its position on Trump, the vice president argued.
“What I see is that the president is doing exactly what he said he was going to do in matters foreign and domestic every day,” Pence said. “And on the foreign stage, the president said that he would put America first, that he would demand more of our allies to provide for our common defense.”
The level of Trump’s personal involvement in foreign-policymaking is higher than most people understand, contradicting the idea that his top national security officials are pushing him to be more conventional, according to Pence.
For example, the night before Pence gave a speech supporting NATO in February at the Munich Security Conference, Trump and Pence were on the phone “literally going line by line” through the speech, Pence revealed. Likewise, while Pence was traveling in Asia, he spoke with Trump at least once every day, Pence said.
Some point to Trump’s decision to strike Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons as evidence that Trump is changing into a traditional GOP hawk on foreign policy, similar to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But again, Pence argued that Trump was sticking to his campaign stance by rejecting a follow-on intervention.
“Despite the urging of some others, he’s remained completely focused on hunting down and destroying ISIS. And that will remain our objective,” he said. “He’s assembled a foreign policy and national security team that commands the respect of the wider world. That’s all the president is doing. “
This method of foreign-policymaking has drawbacks. The top-down approach somewhat disregards the value of the foreign policy bureaucracy, which remains largely vacant of political appointees. And issues that very senior officials don’t have bandwidth for could get short shrift.
This method also is unlikely to work as well with adversaries such as Russia as it does with allies, or to tackle complex problems such as the Syrian civil war. But in general, the more structure the Trump administration adds to its foreign-policymaking, the more consistent and predictable it will be — even if there’s no overarching doctrine to follow.