It seems Russian President Vladimir Putin and Shinzō Abe, prime minister of Japan, know more about the future of U.S. national security priorities under President-elect Donald Trump than the troops and diplomats who would carry it out.
Trump talked to Putin on Monday. And he reportedly met with Abe on Thursday in New York. But his transition team reached out to the Pentagon and several other agencies for the first time only on Thursday afternoon, a defense official told The Daily Beast. Throughout his first week as president-elect, Trump has forged ahead with crafting U.S. foreign policy apparently without the input of the relevant departments.
The decision to talk to foreign leaders about policy without even notifying the U.S. government officials is the latest unorthodox move by a president-elect defined by firsts. Most presidents-elect do not have extensive talks with foreign leaders without at least consulting the U.S. government for background information, a summary of the current policy, or advice on how to proceed.
To some currently serving U.S. officials, the decision to reach out to foreign leaders is an extension of how Trump ran his campaign: improvised, and more than a little chaotic. If any concrete foreign policy proposals are coming together now, they’re happening, in part, through meetings and calls with U.S. allies and foes alike.
Or as one U.S. defense official explained: “We can’t take every statement literally, even of a president-elect. We just wait and see.”
World leaders seem to understand that now is the time to start shaping U.S. policy under a Trump administration. According to CNN, “a top aide to Abe, Katsuyuki Kawai, said that he’d been told by members of Trump’s transition team that Trump’s previous remarks should not be taken literally.”
Abe hoped to meet with Trump to get more clarity and “build trust,” CNN reported.
There is no rule that says a president-elect has to consult the administration. But it’s uncommon for the current administration to have no idea what is being negotiated on behalf of the United States, even one with just weeks to serve. With so few details, U.S. national security officials, particularly those who will serve in the next administration, are left reading tea leaves and statements to figure out what’s being negotiated. Pentagon and State Department officials said they were not aware of the calls beforehand.
Did Trump make promises the U.S. can’t keep? Did he change policy? No one can say for sure, as the Trump transition team has yet to provide a readout of those interactions.
“You could have President-elect Trump making commitments that don’t make sense or he doesn’t understand the full ramifications. And then it is hard to walk it back; that could undermine that relationship,” said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst for the Center for American Progress who worked on President Reagan’s transition team. “The risk [is] that you make commitments that are not in the national security interest that become hard to back out of.”
It is not even clear if the calls were secure. A transition spokesman, Jason Miller, told reporters in a call Thursday that “appropriate” security measures were taken but didn’t elaborate.
The best source of information about Trump’s conversation with Putin came Thursday, from the Russian state media news service Tass, which reported that during the 30-minute call the two talked about the war in Syria, the future of Ukraine, and setting up a date to meet after Jan. 20.
Putin “noted readiness to build partner dialogue with the new administration on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference into each other’s domestic affairs,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
But is that what Putin and Trump really talked about? Given the inevitably messy transition process, there is an incentive for Russia to use this time to shape the relationship between the two countries.
The Russians are saying in their statements about talks with Trump that they want better relations with the U.S. Yet Russia continues to bomb U.S. allies in the Syrian city of Aleppo on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a man the U.S. declared must go.
The Trump transition team statement did not offer many more details.
“During the call, the two leaders discussed a range of issues including the threats and challenges facing the United States and Russia, strategic economic issues, and the historical U.S.-Russia relationship that dates back over 200 years,” the Trump transition team said in a statement Monday.
So far, based on Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, national security officials know that the president-elect wants better relations with Russia. He has said he wants to work with Russia to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria, and he said Putin was a better leader than President Obama. In the hours after the election, Putin said, “Trump’s first statements give us hope that steps towards improving relations between the USA and Russia are possible,” Putin said via spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to the Associated Press.
In the past, presidents-elect have usually reached out to address a crisis. President-elect Reagan, the last person known to have reached out to foreign leaders in the weeks before taking the oath, spoke to foreign leaders in a bid to secure the release of American hostages in Iran. The remaining hostages were released on Jan. 20, his Inauguration Day.
Throughout, Reagan consulted with the outgoing administration about those discussions.
Officials said that even if they don’t know what Trump is saying now, eventually they will. Eventually, he will have to work with the departments to implement policy. And then, as one U.S. official explained, things will become official.
“The Machine will eventually start documenting” what Trump is telling world leaders, the official explained.