When Trump Caved to Xi and Threw Taiwan Under the Bus
When President-elect Trump took a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s leader, it inaugurated four years of chaotic foreign policy with China.
There was no calm before the storm.
Donald Trump’s surprise electoral win on November 8, 2016, sent shockwaves through the global establishment. And it left everyone—in the United States and in China—to wonder what kind of a leader he would be, and whether his tough campaign rhetoric on China would become the basis for a new U.S. foreign policy.
They would not have long to wait. The first indications about what a Trump presidency would look like in practice, not just in theory, came fast and furious during the ten weeks between his election and his inauguration on January 20, 2017. The signs were not reassuring to anyone in Beijing who might have held out hope that the incoming president would keep the relationship on an even keel. The transition showed a president who was already creating havoc and a team of advisers consumed over fighting for control of the policy and the attention of the boss. Relations between the two capitals were an early casualty of this tumult in Washington, D.C.
When the Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi berated his American counterparts in their meeting at Jared Kushner’s office on December 9, he was not merely establishing the baseline of their relationship, or testing the Trump team for strengths and weaknesses. He was also conveying his government’s intense displeasure at one of the incoming Trump administration’s first official acts vis-à-vis China.
Everyone knew why the Chinese leadership was upset, but Yang made it clear anyway. Exactly one week prior, President-Elect Trump had taken a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. This small act had broken four decades of precedent and sent shockwaves throughout Washington and Asia.
Beijing considered Taiwan a renegade province to eventually be subsumed back into China, one way or the other. But the majority of Taiwanese don’t consider themselves Chinese; the island has never been governed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and has a history and culture distinct from those of mainland China, characterized by its indigenous population, its period of Japanese colonial rule, and the waves of migration to Taiwan from mainland China. The CCP also thought of Taiwan as a “core issue,” meaning that it was nonnegotiable and off-limits for other governments.
Every minor interaction between Washington and Taipei was grounds for a diplomatic protest. A contact at this level was an assault on all these understandings. Trump had brazenly provoked Beijing right out of the gate, but nobody knew why. If it was part of a plan, then the fight was on. But if it was some sort of accident or one-off gesture, that meant something completely different. Chinese leaders could not have known it was part of a plan, just not Trump’s.
At the time, the mere fact that Trump had accepted a call from Taiwan’s president—and that the White House put out a press release saying the president had taken a call from the “President of Taiwan”—was proof enough for most of the media that the incoming president was either a reckless China hawk or a neophyte who had clumsily failed his first foreign policy test out of sheer ignorance and naïveté. But the story of how, exactly, Trump came to take a call from Taiwan’s president on Friday, December 2, remains in dispute, even among the people directly involved.
The story’s outcome, on the other hand, is incontestable: Trump ended up conceding one huge issue in the U.S.-China competition almost immediately, for nothing in return. This incident, in turn, became the foundation for Trump’s personal relationship with Xi Jinping—a relationship that would have a massive influence on the course of history.
In the first year of the Trump administration, the White House was a hall of mirrors. Like the Japanese movie Rashomon, every story was told from several perspectives, and even when all storytellers believed they were telling the truth, the stories often differed greatly. These competing narratives—not to mention the authorized leaks, the unauthorized leaks, the flat-out lies, and the fog of confusion—practically ensured that every story about the Trump administration during his first year in office got mangled as it was reported, and then mangled further as other versions emerged.
In the case of Trump’s Taiwan call, the most often reported version of the story also is the one the least believed by people actually in the know. This version was largely accepted by the Washington establishment because it was plausible enough and because, in the chaos of the moment, there were too many other scandals drawing the media’s attention to search for a better version after this basic explanation was printed.
This widely accepted version, as reported by The New York Times and others, credits the Taiwan call to former Kansas senator Bob Dole, whose lobbying law firm, Alston & Bird, gets paid $280,000 a year by the Taiwanese government. Dole “worked behind the scenes over the past six months to establish high-level contact between Taiwanese officials and President-elect Donald J. Trump’s staff.” The Times story even included an interview with Dole himself, speaking on behalf of the Taiwanese government. “They’re very optimistic,” Dole said.
But that’s not the way it actually went down, according to the people who were directly involved. The real connection between the Trump team and Taiwan, they say, was made when Randy Schriver, a former Pentagon official who at the time led a small think tank called the Project 2049 Institute that was partially funded with Taiwanese government money, reached out to a friend of his who was a staffer on the State Department transition team. Schriver told the transition staffer that he had spoken with Taiwanese government officials about a call between Trump and Tsai. The staffer added the call to Trump’s call sheet and sent the call sheet up to Trump Tower in New York.
Trump went through his calls that day until he got to the last one on the list: Taiwan. Because there was so much confusion during the transition, according to some White House insiders, nobody noticed in time to stop it.
But others involved still dispute that Trump was caught unaware. Steve Bannon, who at the time was set to become Trump’s chief strategist, insists that the president-elect was briefed on the call ahead of time—and that Bannon warned Kushner, and they both warned Trump, that the Chinese government would protest. In Bannon’s mind, however, provoking Beijing’s ire was a good thing—and according to Bannon, Trump felt the same way. “If you take the phone call, it will explode around the region, but you will have [the Chinese government] on the back foot,” Bannon told Trump. “Well then, I’m definitely taking the phone call,” Trump responded.
The phone call itself was only a few minutes long and contained not much of substance: Tsai congratulated Trump on his victory and Trump rattled off his usual platitudes and basked in the attention. But the fact of the call was explosive, and it didn’t take long before the media was reporting it as a foolish blunder or, worse, a reckless provocation. Trump was surprised by the Washington media’s response to the call, according to Bannon, although not by Beijing’s—contrary to allegations from others on the transition team that Trump was blindsided by the Chinese government’s swift condemnation.
Everyone involved could agree, at least, that Trump was livid. “However the phone call happened, the president reads about it in The New York Times as the biggest blunder in forty years, which he doesn’t appreciate,” a senior transition official said. “His wonderful staff had just told him to do the call and promised him positive results.”
Trump’s defensiveness was on display when he tweeted the next day that he hadn’t initiated the call: “The President of Taiwan called me today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” This left Beijing in a pickle. Speaking with Taiwan’s leader was an affront that the rulers in China could not ignore.
Xi wanted to come to Mar-a-Lago and cement his relationship with Trump. But he couldn’t lose face. The Taiwan call had to be walked back. Otherwise, Xi would be seen as conceding on a core issue for China right off the bat.
Trump wanted the problem with Xi fixed as well. He had never intended to offend Xi with the call. Trump saw the two countries as two giant corporations and Xi as his opposing CEO. You need a good relationship with the other CEO to have productive negotiations, at least at the start. Trump also looked up to strongman rulers like Xi: He was jealous of Xi’s power but at the same time sought Xi’s validation. But most of all, for Trump, a close personal relationship with Xi was the prerequisite for getting what he wanted—a deal.
So Kushner, working with the Chinese ambassador, devised a plan to break the impasse. On the evening of Thursday, February 9, after most White House staff had gone home, Kushner called Bannon and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the president’s residence. There, Trump took a phone call from Xi. And, as Kushner had arranged, his father-in-law promised Xi directly that he would accept no more phone calls from the leader of Taiwan.
In the official White House statement about the call, Matt Pottinger secured a small but largely symbolic victory. The original draft had stated that Trump would commit to honoring “the one China policy.” But Pottinger made sure the statement read, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our one China policy” (emphasis added). That edit maintained America’s historical position of ambiguity as to whether the United States agrees with Beijing on its claims regarding what it considers a renegade province.
Regardless, the call showed that Trump had conceded Xi’s main point: that the Taiwan call was wrong and would never happen again. “That removed the obstacle for the Mar-a-Lago summit,” Pillsbury said. Kushner had delivered the meeting that Trump had sought, putting the president’s son-in-law firmly in the driver’s seat of U.S.-China policy.
Not everyone was pleased about this outcome. Bannon, for instance, was livid. He saw the call as a naïve concession by Kushner and a misstep by Trump. “Why did we take the phone call from Xi? We had all the leverage. Xi was dying to go to Mar-a-Lago,” Bannon told me later. “They got to Kushner. This is Kushner who drove that. Since that time, Trump doesn’t want to hear about Taiwan.”
After these two phone calls, Trump’s attitude toward Taiwan would vacillate between indifference and disrespect, and would continue in that vein throughout his presidency. Because everybody in the administration was aware of the president’s opinion, the Trump administration—despite being full of pro-Taiwan hawks at the bureaucratic level— avoided almost all public displays of sympathy or support for the island for the first three years. What minor increases in support the United States did muster were done largely without public fanfare and sometimes even without Trump’s knowledge. For instance, despite the fact that Mattis chose Randy Schriver—a pro-Taiwan hardliner—to be the top Pentagon policy official for Asia, it took over two years to push through sales of new F-16 fighter jets to the island. The Pentagon didn’t send any generals or admirals to visit Taipei for public events, which would have been a relatively benign move. For the first year, no senior Trump administration officials visited Taiwan at all.
When Trump officials did visit Taiwan and Beijing complained, Trump took China’s side. In March 2018, a deputy assistant secretary of state named Alex Wong would visit Taipei, meet with senior Taiwanese officials, and give a speech praising Taiwan’s democracy as an example for the entire region. Wong had been the foreign policy staffer for Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and had worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign before that. “The United States has been, is, and always will be Taiwan’s closest friend and partner,” he said during his trip to Taipei.
The Chinese government protested to the White House. When Trump was informed that Beijing was angry about the remarks of Wong in Taipei, he was furious.
“Who the fuck is Alex Wong?” he screamed, according to a person in the room. “And why didn’t anybody tell me he was going to Taiwan? Get him out of there!”
Wong wasn’t fired, but the rest of the administration got the message—one that, in the months and years to follow, would become clear to Taiwan’s government, as well. In early 2019, when the American Institute in Taiwan was preparing a reception to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, there was an internal administration discussion about sending a cabinet-level official to attend. No senior cabinet member wanted to go, so Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was given the assignment. But a month before the ceremony, Trump fired Shulkin after it was revealed that he had been taking his wife on European shopping and sightseeing trips under the cover of official U.S. government business. When Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen arrived at the reception, the highest-level U.S. guests were an assistant secretary of state and former House Speaker Paul Ryan. There were no senior Trump officials in the room.
Trump’s February 2017 phone call with Xi marked the beginning of a dynamic between the two leaders, one that would shape U.S.-China engagement significantly over the next three years. Xi learned that if he really wanted Trump to do something, all he had to do was ask him for a personal favor. Xi called on these favors liberally, using them to keep Trump out of several issues China deemed sensitive and playing Trump against his own government.
The result was a chilling effect that was felt by even the most senior members of the new administration, and which lasted well beyond the first few months of Trump’s presidency. “Trump once told me, I never want to hear from you about Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the Uyghurs,” then national security adviser John Bolton, a vocal supporter of Taiwanese independence, would recall in 2019—adding, “I didn’t even want to try him on Tibet.”
The same year that Bolton made those remarks, one GOP senator would try to convince Trump to do everything possible to persuade China not to crack down on Hong Kong protesters. If Beijing ran roughshod over Hong Kong, the senator argued, China might feel emboldened to take over Taiwan next. That would be a black eye on Trump’s record, he cautioned.
The senator admitted to me that he was exaggerating the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in an attempt to get Trump on board with a stronger stance vis-à-vis Beijing. Based on my conversations with sources inside the administration, this was not unusual; everyone talking to Trump tried to play to his vanity, ego, and political sense, rather than making a case based on any national security interest. But the words that came back from the president’s mouth were chilling.
“Taiwan is like two feet from China,” Trump told the senator. “We are eight thousand miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a fucking thing we can do about it.”
If Trump had said those words publicly, he would have been abdicating forty years of American commitment to aid Taiwan in its defense, which is written into U.S. law, and maintain the status quo that has kept the peace between Taiwan and China. The senator was speechless. This is what Trump really believed. He just didn’t give a shit. Nobody could know—although by that point in his presidency, it’s possible that nobody would have been surprised.
Excerpted from CHAOS UNDER HEAVEN: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century by Josh Rogin. Copyright © 2021 by Josh Rogin. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.