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Donald Trump’s team is trying to have it both ways on its Taiwan controversy

Jia Lynn Yang explains the back story on relations between the U.S., China, and Taiwan, and the ramifications of Friday's telephone call. (Video: Alice Li, Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Either Donald Trump misled all of us about his conversation with Taiwan's leader, or his team is trying to rewrite history so the whole thing doesn't come off as a giant diplomatic blunder.

In today's Washington Post, Anne Gearan, Philip Rucker and Simon Denyer cite inside sources who say the call was months in the making and intentionally provocative in regard to China.

That was apparently news to Trump, who on Friday night, as the controversy erupted, dismissively tweeted as if it were a small matter in which Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen phoned him to offer her congratulations, and he took the call as a courtesy.

And Trump wasn't the only one downplaying it. Richard Grenell, a former George W. Bush administration spokesman at the United Nations who has been advising Trump's transition, said: “It was a simple courtesy call. People need to calm down. The ‘One China’ policy wasn’t changed. Washington, D.C., types need to lighten up.”

Vice President-elect Mike Pence added on Sunday on ABC's “This Week” that Trump “took the call, accepted her congratulations and good wishes, and it was precisely that.”

Mike Pence and Kellyanne Conway defend Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen during talk show appearances. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

But by Sunday evening — shortly before The Post's story went live — Trump took a decidedly new tack, talking tough on China in a way that's more consistent with what the sources were saying about the Taiwan call.

And as The Post's story makes clear, those close to the situation are describing it as much more than just a “courtesy call.” They aren't saying the “One China” policy is out the window, but they do suggest it was meant to signal a substantial shift in at least the tone of U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan. (China views Taiwan as a province, which is why U.S. leaders haven't spoke to Taiwanese leaders for decades. It's provocative to China because it's viewed as legitimizing a prospective Taiwanese claim to independence.)

As Tumulty, Rucker and Denyer report:

The historic communication — the first between leaders of the United States and Taiwan since 1979 — was the product of months of quiet preparations and deliberations among Trump’s advisers about a new strategy for engagement with Taiwan that began even before he became the Republican presidential nominee, according to people involved in or briefed on the talks.
The call also reflects the views of hard-line advisers urging Trump to take a tough opening line with China, said others familiar with the months of discussion about Taiwan and China.

But if this was meant to be provocative from the very beginning, why the initially defensive tweets from Trump, and why the efforts to downplay it? Why did Trump take two days to offer his tougher message to China, after the idea that this had been a blunder was cemented? What's going on here?

A few possibilities:

One, Trump knew the truth and misled us all to keep the official policy more opaque and keep all sides guessing. This is probably the most generous conclusion in that it suggests this was all deliberate and strategic (but also dishonest).

Two, Trump took the call with little knowledge of what was actually happening behind the scenes and what his aides were plotting. Seeing the controversy erupt, his first impulse was to downplay it, and thus the tweets.

Or three, Trump's decision to take the call backed his team into a corner, and now they've decided to emphasize the idea that this wasn't a blunder but was actually intended to provoke. And that fits with Trump's previous tough-on-China rhetoric.

But you can't have it both ways here. Either this was meant to be a significant call or it wasn't. You can't argue that it was merely a congratulatory call in which Trump was simply being courteous but also argue that the whole thing was long-planned and meant to provoke China.

The upshot of this new reporting is that perhaps Trump's chat with Tsai wasn't such a foreign policy blunder or rookie mistake, as his tweets suggested it was. But that also means that efforts to downplay the call were disingenuous, at best.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest answers reporters' questions about President-elect Donald Trump's telephone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. (Video: Reuters)