Facing Trump: Syria. North Korea. Japan. France. Germany.

President Donald Trump begins an all-out...

Posted: Apr 10, 2018 3:38 PM
Updated: Apr 10, 2018 3:38 PM

President Donald Trump begins an all-out diplomatic sprint this week with his national security team in flux and his anger boiling over at the special counsel's Russia investigation.

Trump is preparing for a series of decisions that could form the basis for a new American presence around the globe, and the consequences of his heavy diplomatic schedule could be felt on five continents.

The moment comes following Trump's installation of a hawkish new national security team and his adoption of an increasingly emboldened approach toward fulfilling his campaign promises.

But it also arrives as Trump remains preoccupied with an encroaching Russia investigation, growing angrier and angrier at the widening circle of his advisers and confidants caught in Robert Mueller's web. The latest was his private attorney Michael Cohen, whose office and hotel room were raided by the FBI on Monday.

The ambient presence of the Russia investigation has distracted Trump as a major schedule of summits and negotiations looms. The talks begin Tuesday with the emir of Qatar and proceed at a rapid pace toward a possible meeting next month with North Korea's dictator.

Trump enters the meetings with no permanent secretary of state and a new national security adviser, John Bolton, whose arrival to the West Wing has led to uncertainty and concern among some of Trump's aides. One of Trump's top staffers, homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, was pushed out on Tuesday. His national security spokesman Michael Anton departed earlier in the week.

Already, one of Trump's major diplomatic efforts has been scrapped. The White House said on Tuesday that Trump would forgo a planned trip to South America, set to begin on Friday, to remain in the United States as he plans a response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria and "to monitor developments around the world."

Officials said the rush of meetings has White House advisers working overtime to prepare the President, who has a notoriously short attention span. On Monday, his national security team was consumed with consultations over how to respond to the suspected Syria attack, even as aides continued to prepare briefing materials for the President's upcoming talks.

Trump himself has spoken by phone with foreign leaders on most days over the past week as his diplomatic efforts scale up, including intensive conversations with French President Emmanuel Macron over a Syria response.

The President has told his associates recently that he's grown more confident in his talks with foreign leaders, according to people familiar with the conversations. Describing himself as the consummate negotiator, Trump has said he is now more comfortable on the global stage having served as president for more than a year. He remains highly attuned to interpersonal dynamics, people who speak with him say, and believes his ability to alternately charm or intimidate his foreign counterparts is the key to diplomatic success.

In private conversations, Trump has recounted in detail the lavish welcomes that leaders offered him in Riyadh, Paris and Beijing, suggesting the state pageantry reflected his standing on the global stage. He's hailed his own ability to cultivate leaders like China's Xi Jinping, even as the US and China exchange tit-for-tat tariffs that could lead to a trade war.

"He is pretty good at negotiating," said Trump's new chief economist, Larry Kudlow, on CNN's "State of the Union." "But he is also pretty good at standing his ground."

Diplomatic calendar

The crowded diplomatic calendar begins Tuesday with the Qatari emir, who is among the Persian Gulf leaders Trump has pressed to contribute more to regional stabilization efforts. The President also hopes to patch up a bitter regional dispute among the Gulf states that's gripped the region for months.

Next week in Florida, he will sit for talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who rushed to arrange a meeting amid differences over North Korea.

Trump next returns to Washington to host his first state visit for France's Macron, a test of his hospitality but also his willingness to bend on issues like Syria, Iran and trade. Soon afterward, German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the White House hoping to improve a relationship gone sour.

If Trump has his way, all that will lead up to a history-making summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, an audacious diplomatic opening that some White House advisers still believe is unlikely to ever happen, even as secret talks proceed between Washington and Pyongyang.

Bolton, the former envoy to the United Nations who Trump tapped as his national security adviser, officially took up his post Monday. Mike Pompeo, the Central Intelligence Agency director who was named secretary of state, will begin confirmation proceedings on Capitol Hill this week. But he is not expected to be in place in time for the bulk of Trump's upcoming talks.

Hawkish views

Both Bolton and Pompeo replaced officials Trump regarded as overly doctrinaire in their foreign policy views, unwilling to cede to the isolationist or protectionist steps the President believes his voters want. The next several weeks will test whether Bolton or Pompeo are more willing than their predecessors to allow those "America First" views to prevail.

That scenario has led to a degree of anxiety among some National Security Council and State Department officials, who view Bolton as something of an unknown quantity, despite his history in government and the positions he espoused as a cable news commentator.

"It isn't a television talking head job," said Tom Donilon, who served as national security adviser to President Barack Obama. "It's really a job that brings together a team in the most coherent, effective way for the President."

"I think it's very important for Ambassador Bolton to really consciously consider how he's going to approach the job," Donilon said. "This person spends as much time with the President each day as anybody or any adviser in the government does."

Bolton's first test will be developing options to respond to a weekend suspected chemical gas attack in Syria, an episode that further complicates Trump's avowed aim of pulling US troops from the country. Trump himself declared there would be a "big price to pay" for the attack, and administration officials would not rule out further US missile strikes on Syrian regime targets in response. Bolton led his first "principals small group" meeting on Monday to discuss possible next steps.

But when it was time to discuss Syria options with senior military leaders on Monday evening at the White House, it was the Russia investigation clearly at the front of Trump's mind.

As the President launched unprompted into a tirade about Mueller and the FBI, Bolton and other national security officials sat stone-faced, some with their eyes downcast. Bolton adjusted his glasses and fiddled with a pen as the commander in chief attacked his attorney general, deputy attorney general and special counsel in a blistering partisan broadside that stood out, even by Trump's standards.

Rogue regimes

If Trump's packed schedule of talks with foreign counterparts has one through-line, it is the nuclear intentions of rogue regimes and US attempts to end them. At Mar-a-Lago, he is expected to confer with Abe over his planned meeting with North Korea's Kim, a decision he made on-the-spot when presented with an invitation from a South Korean interlocutor. Abe is preparing a list of concerns about such a meeting, a person familiar with his plans says.

But Trump has made clear to aides that he fully intends to meet with Kim, and preparatory talks are already underway between US and North Korean intelligence officials.

"We've been in touch with North Korea. We'll be meeting with them sometime in May or early June. And I think there'll be great respect paid by both parties," Trump said during a meeting of his Cabinet on Monday. "And hopefully, we'll be able to make a deal on the de-nuking of North Korea. They've said so."

Meanwhile, an upcoming decision on whether to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord will provide further evidence of Trump's new national security team's intentions. The President has begrudgingly maintained US participation in the agreement at the advice of his national security aides. But each time he was pressured into renewing America's commitment to the deal, he lashed out in private at now-departed aides like Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, who believed a complete withdrawal would damage American standing.

Bolton and Pompeo have both been highly critical of the nuclear accord, leading some US officials to believe a withdrawal is now more likely. Contingency planning for some type of pull-back from the deal is already underway at the Departments of State and Treasury, as well as at the White House, according to people familiar with the matter.

Meeting with allies

Both Macron and Merkel hope to convince Trump before the mid-May deadline to reconsider his approach, Western diplomats said this week. Their countries, along with other European signatories to the accord, have been working with the US to negotiate ways to address Trump's perceived flaws in the deal. But those talks have stalled, prompting the French and German leaders to make direct in-person appeals to Trump.

Macron, Trump's closest global friend, will make his case during a pomp-filled state visit, Trump's first time deploying the highest form of diplomatic flattery. The event will include formal talks, but also frills like an intimate dinner at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia and a black-tie state dinner at the White House -- a test not only of the President but also his wife Melania, who has been engaged in preparations for the visit for the past several weeks.

Merkel, meanwhile, will arrive in Washington with reduced stature. Once the favored European leader for US presidents, including Obama and President George W. Bush, Merkel got off to a frosty start with Trump and struggled to recover. The two leaders went more than five months without speaking earlier this year.

Her second visit to the White House, expected at the end of April, is an attempt to reset the relationship, western diplomats have said.

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