One week into office, President Donald Trump was trying to clean up his first international incident.
The president shifted a jam-packed schedule Friday to make room for an hourlong phone call with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who had abruptly snubbed the new president by canceling a visit. Trump’s team had appeared to respond by threatening a hefty border tax on Mexican imports.
By the end of the conversation, Trump had tasked his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner — a real estate executive with no national security experience — with managing the ongoing dispute, according to an administration official with knowledge of the call.
The episode, an uneven diplomatic debut, revealed the earliest signs of how the new president plans to manage world affairs. In a matter of days, he both alarmed and reassured international partners. He picked fights, then quickly backed away from them. He talked tough, and toned it down. And at each step, Trump relied on the small clutch of advisers that guided his norm-breaking campaign, a group with scant foreign policy experience but the trust of the president.
Much of the foreign policy decision-making has rested with Kushner and Steve Bannon, the conservative media executive turned White House adviser, according to administration officials and diplomats. Rex Tillerson, his nominee for secretary of state, is still awaiting confirmation. Officials at the National Security Council, an agency Trump has described as bloated, are still seeking marching orders from the new administration.
Some of Trump’s early diplomatic moves have followed standard protocols. He scheduled early phone calls with friendly allies, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who both plan to meet Trump at the White House next month. Additional calls were planned Saturday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, key European partners.
But Trump also moved swiftly to announce a new era. He declared an end to efforts to pursue multi-nation trade deals and used his first executive action to withdraw the U.S. from a sweeping Pacific Rim pact. He also effectively closed off the United States to refugees, at least temporarily, and risked angering the Arab world by halting visas for people from seven majority Muslim nations for at least three months.
On his first full day as president, he told members of the intelligence community gathered at CIA headquarters that the U.S. should have taken Iraq’s oil for “economic reasons,” given America’s efforts in the country, adding, “But, OK, maybe you’ll have another chance.”
Some officials at the National Security Council raised concerns over several elements of the refugee measure, as well as other early actions the president took on border security. But administration officials say Trump’s inner circle has addressed few of their concerns.
Administration officials and diplomats insisted on anonymity to disclose private dealings with the White House.
Kushner and Bannon have been heavily involved in the Trump administration’s early dealings with some European partners, leading during both phone calls and in-person meetings with diplomats and government officials.
In a discussion with British officials, Kushner is said to have angrily denounced the United Kingdom’s decision to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the expansion of Israeli settlements. The U.S. abstained from the vote before President Barack Obama left office, brushing aside Trump’s demands that the U.S. exercise its veto.
In contrast with the Trump team’s strong views on Israel, European partners have been left largely in the dark about Trump’s approach to Russia. Some are on edge over a phone call with Putin on Saturday and fear he may strike a deal that leads to the removal of U.S. sanctions on Russia. The call was said to be arranged by national security adviser Mike Flynn, who has kept a low profile in recent days amid scrutiny over his ties to Russian officials.
Trump did little to ease anxieties Friday when he pointedly refused to say whether he planned to keep in place economic sanctions on Russia as punishment for its provocations in Ukraine.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said during a news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The prime minister was the first world leader to meet Trump following last week’s inauguration, underscoring May’s eagerness to get a reading on a man who is a mystery to many world leaders. Trump was measured during their brief joint press conference, but he also showed flashes of charm, joking with May about a British reporter’s pointed question about his position on torture and complimenting her for being a “people person.”
A visit from Pena Nieto to Washington had been expected to follow May’s. But after Trump needled the Mexican president on Twitter, saying it would be better for him not to come if he couldn’t commit to paying for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S. southern border, Pena Nieto told the White House he wouldn’t be coming.
The White House quickly threatened to slap a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico to pay for the wall, though officials quickly tried to walk the proposal back, saying it was just one option being considered.
Kushner, who already wields enormous power in the White House, is expected to work through the dispute with Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray. The two men, who know each other from the financial circles, also worked together to arrange Trump’s surprise visit to Mexico during the presidential campaign.
The readouts released by the two countries after Friday’s call pointed to the work to be done. A statement from Mexico said the presidents agreed “to no longer speak publicly” about their dispute over payment for the border wall.
The White House statement made no such promise.
AP Diplomatic Correspondent Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
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