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What do first impressions say about Trump’s foreign policy?

November 17, 2016 at 6:45 PM EST
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President-elect Donald Trump in New York, in Mr. Trump's first face-to-face meeting with a world leader since the election. Many have wondered if the president-elect’s campaign rhetoric is the same as his foreign policy. Former Reagan administration official Michael Pillsbury and David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy join Judy Woodruff.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President-elect Trump has spoken by phone to scores of world leaders. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met with him in person in New York this evening, following concern in his country over statements candidate Trump made during the campaign.

In fact, questions have been raised in many quarters about Trump’s foreign policy, as he decides who his main appointments in that arena will be.

We turn now to Michael Pillsbury, who has been advising the Trump transition team. He has served in past Republican administrations in the Defense Department and on the National Security Council staff. And David Rothkopf, he is the CEO and editor of “Foreign Policy” magazine and the author of “National Insecurity: American Leadership in An Age of Fear.”

And we welcome both of you to the program.

Michael Pillsbury, let me start with you and ask you about this visit with the Japanese prime minister, the meeting late this afternoon with Donald Trump. How typical is it for a foreign head of government to meet with someone who’s been elected president, but hasn’t taken office yet?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY, Former Reagan Administration Official: It’s common.

This is basically a Japanese initiative. It’s a very good idea. It lets the Japanese sort of get the feel of Mr. Trump, present some of their concerns from the campaign rhetoric. And the fact that Mr. Abe has already said that it’s an honor for him to be the first foreign leader in some sense sets up a competitive dynamic.

There’s been some approaches already now already from Prime Minister Modi of India and other countries that they would like to have a chance to talk to the president-elect as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying it’s common, this is something that is normally done?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: I don’t the statistics.

The key thing is, the president-elect can’t act. He can’t conduct foreign policy, but he can certainly educate himself and have a chance to meet people, so that, after he’s president, it won’t be the first time, it won’t meeting of two strangers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Rothkopf, what about that? How accustomed are we, should we be, to a president-elect having these kinds of meetings?

DAVID ROTHKOPF, Foreign Policy: Well, these kind of things happen. President Obama met with foreign leaders before he took office.

I think what president-elect Trump needs to think about a little bit is that his actions have foreign policy consequences whether or not he’s meeting with foreign leaders, so that, for example, if he sends out a tweet trying to intimidate or berate The New York Times, foreign leaders who might be wanting to do that themselves start saying, oh, there is a change in a U.S. policy.

Or if he cozies up to Russia, or if he appoints an ethno-nationalist as his primary adviser, people say, oh, perhaps ethno-nationalism is in season at the White House. Everything is being watched. Everything he does has a foreign policy consequence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn back to you, Michael Pillsbury, because there has been a lot made about not just Stephen Bannon being named as a top counselor to the president in the White House, but about what Donald Trump said during the campaign.

How much concern is there out there on the part of foreign leaders about him?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, it’s hard to be sure of that, because he’s not president yet. And so things that foreign leaders say can be for effect.

I can take you back to the Reagan administration. I was on President Reagan’s transition team. And we had similar issues. People wanted to get in touch to know, what is the true policy going to be/

And transition teams and someone like me, especially an adviser on the outside, don’t have any authority. President Reagan didn’t really get to his main national security strategy until after one year in office. Some of these key documents, national security decision, Directive 32 on the Soviet Union, took one year to hash out.

So we’re really in a very early phase, where, as David says, yes, the tweets are read and people are watching, but these are not official acts. There’s no team of secretary of state and defense actually meeting to hammer things out yet. We’re way early to see what the Trump administration role in history is going to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David Rothkopf, it sounds like Michael Pillsbury is saying it’s just too early to get concerned about any of this until he takes office and starts making decisions.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Well, I don’t know if it’s too early.

Yesterday, you had the head of the National Security Agency saying that Russia had taken an active role in trying to tip the scales of this election towards Trump. And, indeed, that’s what happened. Then Trump got on the phone with Russia, talked to Putin, waxed rhapsodic about a letter from Putin.

A day later, Putin launches a major offensive in Syria. Some of the people who Trump is considering are people who are fairly cozy with the Russians, including General Mike Flynn. And so all of a sudden people are starting to put pieces together.

Michael’s right it takes time for a foreign policy legacy to emerge, but, for — first impressions matter. And right now, Donald Trump is making some pretty disturbing first impressions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to come back on the specifics of that.

But, Michael, go ahead.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: I don’t agree at all on…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: Well, a new president from whatever party deserves a bit of a cease-fire in my view. The election is over. Politics is going to continue.

There will be harsh criticism of Donald Trump, I’m sure, for the next four years. One of my favorite expressions in Washington is something George Shultz once said, I think on the “PBS NewsHour.” He said — quote — “Nothing ever gets settled in this town.”

So, conflicts continue. We can criticize Mike Flynn, but he’s not been named yet as the national security adviser. I personally hope he is. I ready General Mike Flynn’s book on the war on terror. It’s quite good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about…

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: He’s not speaking right now. General Flynn, going on TV, for example, he doesn’t speak as a government official.

This was an election campaign which is now over, and there needs to be a kind of break in this harsh daily criticism of Mr. Trump and his team.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David Rothkopf, I hear you saying that there are signals being sent by the conversation that Donald Trump had with Vladimir Putin, for example.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Of course.

And there are signals that are being sent with tweets intimidating The Times, and there are signals being sent with who he’s evaluating for key offices and who might be the people that he chooses to appoint to those offices.

And, you know, yes, it would be nice, ideally, if we could set aside the politics for a moment, but some of these things are not political. When you go and take somebody who’s run a publication that’s a white supremacist, misogynist publication and appoint him right next door to the president in the White House, that sends a message, particularly in Europe right now, where there’s a rising tide of the right.

One of those people who he’s appointed, Steve Bannon, has already sent a message to the Le Pen team who is going to contend for the presidency of France next year, extreme right-wingers. And so he’s saying, look, we will help you, we’re part of this rising tide of the right.

So, actions are being taken, choices are being made, and the consequences are serious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we should say that the Breitbart News organization argues against the characterization that it’s white supremacist.

But, setting that aside, Michael Pillsbury, what about this argument that, already, by his statements, even saying I had a good conversation with Vladimir Putin, and the next day Russia launches yet another strike, punishing strike in Syria, that those are not things that we should be concerned about, at the very least?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: I think the key thing is a White House fact sheet that President Obama issued and President Obama’s own statements that the Obama administration has tried very hard to prepare memos for every government department for the last few months suggesting what to do, descriptions of what has happened so far.

But those will not be turned over until Mr. Trump’s transition teams arrive in the buildings. Now, the problem we have right now is that the transition teams have not been sent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they did arrive today. Some of them did arrive today.

MICHAEL PILLSBURY: And this is a setback for the past week or so, but it’s easy to remedy this. And now the dialogue begins.

So, things like David is concerned about, they will begin to sort of get hold of what’s been going on in various foreign policy and defense areas quite soon. We’re in this very, very premature first week now, as I appeal again to David, give people a break.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are just beginning to watch, and this is the first of many, many conversations we are going to be having on this.

Michael Pillsbury, David Rothkopf, we thank you both.

DAVID ROTHKOPF: Pleasure.

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