ANALYSIS | Their long weekend mini-summit began with what can only be described as a “bro hug” -- initiated by the new U.S. president.
Donald Trump greeted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe outside the White House’s West Wing with a warm handshake that became and affectionate embrace, complete with backslaps. Later, in the Oval Office, Trump complemented Abe’s strong handshake.
At the start of their joint press conference in the East Room, Trump lavished Abe and his country with praise, calling Abe an “important and steadfast ally,” and hailing the U.S.-Japanese “bond” as a “friendship” that “runs very, very deep.”
“This administration is committed to bringing those ties even closer,” Trump said. “We are committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control and to further strengthening our very crucial alliance. The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region.”
For Trump, it’s even more than that. His effusiveness toward Abe after another rough week suggests the 45th American president knows he needs to keep Abe close. After all, Japan will be a key regional power to help Trump with his planned get-tougher-on-China approach.
Trump’s mention of territories under Abe’s “administrative control” was a thinly veiled reference to the Senkaku Islands, over which Japan claims control but over which the country has been locked in a feud with China. That means it was also a not-so-veiled message to Beijing. So, too, was Trump’s pledge that U.S.-Japanese work toward better defenses soon would be “impenetrable.” There, Trump also was warning North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs — a warning Abe later joined.
Trump tried to end the press conference a bit early after again lavishing his Japanese counterpart with praise, saying they developed a “great friendship” when they met at Trump Tower on Nov. 17, days after the businessman and reality television star was elected. Trump explained his warm welcome in the frigid February air as a product of their “great chemistry and bond,” adding with a wide smile: “I’ll let you know if that changes, but I don’t think it will.”
There were odd moments, however, that suggest a less-chummy relationship than Trump and Abe let on in public. For instance, Trump did not insert his earpiece to listen to a translator when Abe gave his opening remarks — in Japanese. In fact, the U.S. president only put it in a few times as his counterpart addressed reporters’ questions.
Abe said he wanted to “celebrate and congratulate” Trump on his victory in his first ever political campaign. “With President Trump taking on the leadership, I’m sure there will be major-scale infrastructure investments,” an effusive Abe said, quickly offering up his country’s “high-level of technical capability” to give a boost to Trump’s “growth strategy.”
Abe seemed eager to win the new U.S. president’s affection and trust, going out of his way to praise Trump’s golf game. (Abe will join Trump for a weekend of meeting and golf at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida.)
“I am looking forward for our weekend in Florida with Donald,” Abe said. “We will play golf together. My scores in golf [are] not up to the level of Donald,” he added with a smile.
Though Abe — even while discussing regional threats like North Korea — kept his even-keel demeanor throughout the joint press conference, Trump’s genial host air soon gave way to the defiant and brash tone that defined his presidential campaign and his first 21 days in office.
“One of the reasons I am standing here today, the security of our country, the voters felt I would give it the best security,” he said when asked about his next steps after an appellate court upheld a lower court’s order to stop his ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
As always, the frenetic commander in chief vowed to respond to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s unanimous decision boldy.
“So we’ll be doing something very rapidly having to do with the additional security for our country. You’ll be seeing that sometime next week,” Trump said, later vowing “we will be extreme vetting” individuals from Muslim-majority countries who are trying to enter the United States.
“There are tremendous threats to our country,” a grim-faced Trump warned. “So we’ll be going forward and we’ll be doing things to continue to make our country safe.” The president defiantly vowed to keep up his administration’s court battle over his travel ban order, defiantly declaring he has “no doubt we will win that particular case.”
Trump also took on his familiar Mr. Tough Guy persona when asked what he would do to force China to stop inflating the value of its currency, the yuan.
“I believe that we will all eventually and probably, very much sooner than a lot of people understand or think, we will be all at a level playing field, because that’s the only way it’s fair,” Trump said with both hands firmly on his blue podium. “That’s the only way that you can fairly compete in trade and other things. And we will be on that field and we will all be working very hard to do great for our country. But it has to be fair — and we will make it fair.”
But, as Trump discovered with the 9th Circuit, his tough words do not always produce the effect he wants.