One of the more interesting aspects of the now infamous Taiwan-Trump phone conversation of Friday, is that nobody admits to initiating the call.
When criticism of the call broke out Friday, Trump quickly claimed that Taiwan called him:
Trump offered no apologies, nor did his transition team make any comments. Instead, he defended the discussion amid reams of criticism for having broken U.S. protocol by saying Tsai initiated it.
“The President of taiwan CALLED ME today to wish me congratulations on winning the Presidency. Thank you!” Trump tweeted.
However, Taiwanese officials say otherwise.
Except, a spokesman for the Taiwan government quickly contradicted the U.S. president-elect, saying the call had been arranged in advance: “Of course both sides agreed ahead of time before making contact.”
If he meant to imply that the incoming call was a surprise, then he either was lying or had been misled; Taiwan’s press had already published news of a “scheduled” call hours earlier. The Taipei Times reported, “Trump reportedly agreed to the call, which was arranged by his Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan and the situation in the Taiwan Strait, sources said.”
Today we learn that the guy who arranged for Trump’s call with the President of Taiwan was none other than Stephen Yates. He’s currently in Taipei and working for the Trump transition team. Yates has a post at The Heritage Foundation while also running his own international consultancy – a typical arrangement for high level foreign policy hands of both parties when their party is out of power.
[Late Update: After I wrote this post but I think before I pushed the 'publish button', Yates has now denied reports that he arranged the call, while saying he thinks he was a great idea. I would suggest keeping an open mind about whether the original reports or the denial are more credible. If it wasn't this Yates, it was likely another.]
For starters this leaves little doubt that this call was intentional – at least in the sense that Trump’s advisors put it together with a full understanding of the diplomatic implications. Just how much Trump understood this or understood the full ramifications of taking this call isn’t entirely clear. The fact that Trump’s twitter freak out pushed the point that the Taiwanese President had called him, not vice versa, suggests an element of defensiveness and incomplete understanding of the situation.
In other words, it’s possible Trump is being manipulated by advisors with their own agenda. Of course, it’s also possible that most of the people advising Trump are dumb as a box of rocks, also.
Back to Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:
In the hours that followed, it became clear that Trump may have been manipulated into doing something he doesn’t understand. Michael Crowley, of Politico, noted that the former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who favors a tilt away from Beijing, visited Trump Tower on Friday for undisclosed reasons. Bolton has argued for “playing the Taiwan card” to pressure Beijing. In a January op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he wrote,
The new U.S. administration could start with receiving Taiwanese diplomats officially at the State Department; upgrading the status of U.S. representation in Taipei from a private “institute” to an official diplomatic mission; inviting Taiwan’s president to travel officially to America; allowing the most senior U.S. officials to visit Taiwan to transact government business; and ultimately restoring full diplomatic recognition.
Further complicating matters, according to the blog Shanghaiist, Trump and his family are currently trying to win a lucrative contract with a Taiwanese city: “A representative from the Trump Organization paid a visit to Taoyuan in September, expressing interest in the city’s Aerotropolis, a large-scale urban development project aimed at capitalizing on Taoyuan’s status as a transport hub for East Asia, Taiwan News reports.” Did Trump break nearly four decades of diplomatic practice to sweeten his family’s business prospects with Taiwan? His supporters, of course, say no. But the President-elect has taken no steps that would defuse that perception.
It’s going to be a long four years, folks. News analysts are saying that China appears to be taking a low-key approach, possibly concluding that Trump must be an idiot. But apparently they had been willing to give him lots of benefits of lots of doubts, thinking he was someone they could work with, and now he’s blown that impression out of the water.
“This is a wake-up call for Beijing — we should buckle up for a pretty rocky six months or year in the China-U.S. relationship,” Wang Dong, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, said Saturday. “There was a sort of delusion based on overly optimistic ideas about Trump. That should stop.”
If they’re going to cause an international incident, though, I’d rather they do it now while President Obama is still running things. Perhaps even Trump can learn that actions have consequences. Otherwise it’s going to be one blunder after another until somebody finally has had enough.