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Analysis: For Trump, Wins and Losses During Abe Summit

‘The body language on trade was just really startling,’ expert says

President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold a news conference at Mar-a-Lago in April 2018. The two leaders will spend another few days together when Trump visits Japan Saturday through Tuesday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)
President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hold a news conference at Mar-a-Lago in April 2018. The two leaders will spend another few days together when Trump visits Japan Saturday through Tuesday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file photo)

White House aides set a low bar for their boss ahead of his two-day summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — and President Donald Trump often cleared it with ease. But experts say there were a few stumbles too.

Trump aides made clear they had no “deliverables” in mind ahead of the Tuesday-Wednesday talks, which touched on everything from a new round of trade talks to dealing with North Korea to their respective golf games. That diplomat-speak refers to agreements or other things the White House wants meetings with world leaders to produce.

Senior administration officials who briefed reporters before the Trump-Abe summit made clear the real objective was to try to get the two leaders back on the same sheet of music on North Korea, trade and combating China economically — while assuaging fears in Japan it was drifting out of the U.S. orbit under Trump.

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Experts gave Trump solid grades for expressing firm support for Japan in the standoff with North Korea and for repeatedly highlighting his personal rapport with Abe. The Japanese leader at times beamed and smiled by Trump’s side. But other times, as Trump lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping and ripped a trade pact Japan wants him to re-enter, Abe was stone-faced. The Japanese leader’s body language often was a tell for how things were going.

Here are some wins and losses — and one net draw — for both leaders during the mini-summit.

Win: Loyalty pledge

“And we will be very loyal to Japan.”

With those eight words near the end of a Wednesday evening joint press conference, held in a hall at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort adorned in marble and gold, experts said the U.S. president did much to address Abe’s concerns.

“Trump’s comments about walking out of the North Korea talks and about being loyal to Japan, those were wins for Abe,” said Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Those were really moments when he looked and sounded the part of being presidential. … It did seem he felt more comfortable in that role, and with the complex set of issues that were being discussed.”

Abe got a major win when the U.S. president pledged to press Kim Jong Un on Japanese citizens that have been abducted by North Korea.

“And I said to him right then and there last night at the table, I said we will work very hard on that issue, and we will try and bring those folks back home,” Trump said Wednesday night. “Very, very hard.”

Loss: Trade tiff

“The body language on trade was just really startling,” said Nick Szechenyi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It strikes me — and I thought their press conference really underscored this — there’s a lot of distance between the two governments on trade.”

With the world watching, the duo split on their goals for a new round of trade talks Abe announced during the press conference, exposing a rift in the alliance.

The Japanese leader told reporters he wants the U.S.-Japan talks to expand the two countries’ levels of trade and investment in each other’s markets, and lead to the re-entry of the United States into the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade alliance that includes Japan and 10 other countries. Minutes later, Trump broke with his counterpart. “I don’t want to go back into TPP,” Trump said.

He did add a caveat. If the TPP countries collectively offered the U.S. terms different from those negotiated by former President Barack Obama’s administration, “I would do it.”

Smith sees that caveat as the U.S. president signaling he is “willing to agree to disagree and now roll up their sleeves and get to work. … They already negotiated at a very micro level during the TPP negotiations. I suspect any new [U.S.-Japan pact] would have the environmental and labor protections from TPP.”

But, as Szechenyi asked, “What incentive does Japan have to do that all over again?”

Draw: Kim conundrum

Though Abe clearly appreciated Trump’s vow to cancel the possible talks with Kim or walk out of the room if he determines the North Korean dictator is not interested in a solid enough deal, experts say there is one sticking point between the two leaders on the matter. That would be Trump’s apparent belief he — and only he — can get Kim in a room and cut a deal.

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“We’ve never been in a position like this with that regime — whether it’s father, grandfather, or son. And I hope to have a very successful meeting,” Trump said Wednesday evening. “If we don’t think it’s going to be successful … we won’t have it. … If I think that it’s a meeting that is not going to be fruitful, we’re not going to go. If the meeting, when I’m there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.”

“But something will happen,” he said. “So we’ve gotten us here, and I think we’re going to be successful.”

Szechenyi expressed concern that it “still seems like the president is very confident in his ability to negotiate an agreement with Kim without fully understanding all the equities at stake, including from Japan’s standpoint. That worries the Japanese government.”

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(Net) Win: Getting personal

From the early days of his presidency, it has been clear Trump’s view about conducting foreign policy is based largely on a sense that his personal relationships with other world leaders is the key.

The two lavished each other with praise when Abe visited the White House and Mar-a-Lago in early 2017. While their relationship has cooled a bit, they were back at it this week.

Trump referred to the Japanese leader as his “good friend” and a “highly respected gentleman.” Abe returned the favor, saying the two days of meetings, meals and golf allowed him to “further deepen my friendship and relationship of trust with President Trump.”

“I saw an effort by both leaders to impress upon everyone that their personal relationship is still intact,” said Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, “even though Abe is unhappy with the … steel and aluminum tariffs and the lack of consultation before Trump’s Kim announcement.”

“Both are having trouble at home. They don’t want to have a dramatic falling out,” she said. “I think the president realizes Japan and Abe are important to him as he approaches the possible Kim summit. … There was a lot of Donald and Shinzo both days.”

Szechenyi also said Trump made clear his relationship with Abe is “critically important.” But he noted one stumble: “For Trump to praise Xi Jinping was really awkward. It just seems, for him, it’s almost exclusively about what these relations do for him.”

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