Donald Trump’s diplomatic learning curve: time zones, ‘Nambia’ and ‘Nipple’
The president has often perplexed foreign officials and his own aides as he learns how to deal with the world beyond America's borders
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Daniel Lippman on politico.com on August 13, 2018.
Several times in the first year of his administration, US President Donald Trump wanted to call Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the middle of the afternoon. But there was a problem. Mid-afternoon in Washington is the middle of the night in Tokyo – when Abe would be fast asleep.
Trump’s aides had to explain the issue, which one diplomatic source said came up on “a constant basis”, but it wasn’t easy.
“He wasn’t great with recognising that the leader of a country might be 80 or 85 years old and isn’t going to be awake or in the right place at 10:30 or 11pm their time,” said a former Trump NSC official. “When he wants to call someone, he wants to call someone. He’s more impulsive that way. He doesn’t think about what time it is or who it is,” added a person close to Trump.
In the case of Abe and others, Trump’s NSC staffers would advise him, for instance, that “the time is messed up, it’s 1 o’clock in the morning” and promise to put the call on his calendar for a more diplomatically appropriate time.
Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster would assure him: “We can try to set it up.”
Trump’s desire to call world leaders at awkward hours is just one of many previously unreported diplomatic faux-pas President Trump has made since assuming the office, which go beyond telephone etiquette to include misconceptions, mispronunciations and awkward meetings.
Sometimes the foibles have been contained within the White House. In one case, Trump, while studying a briefer’s map of South Asia ahead of a 2017 meeting with India’s prime minister, mispronounced Nepal as “nipple” and laughingly referred to Bhutan as “button”, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.
A White House official said that others who were at the meeting don’t remember Trump saying these comments and that he asked appropriate questions.
The mistakes may not be surprising for a leader inexperienced in foreign affairs and accustomed to flouting convention.
But some seasoned former diplomats say they risk doing real harm to America’s image – and interests – overseas.
“The underlying premise of protocol is respect for other people,” said Wendy Sherman, a former senior State Department official in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
“When the President doesn’t follow protocol, it’s a sign of disrespect.”
Trump’s defenders call such talk overblown, noting that all presidents learn on the job and that Trump has never been a stickler for fine etiquette.
“The President has developed strong relationships and good rapports that are not only friendly, but also allow for candid conversations with many of America’s closest allies,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told POLITICO.
“He has even worked the phone with our competitors, injecting stability into bilateral relationships that are undergoing contentious, but necessary readjustments to place American interests first. Foreign leaders appreciate that the president is willing to take their calls day and night.”
“The president has made clear that when leaders reach out for calls, [aides should] set them up right away. He has had foreign leaders calls very late at night and never wants another leader to wait before their call is returned,” she added.
James Carafano, vice-president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation who was an adviser to Trump’s State Department transition team, acknowledged that Trump has had a learning curve as president, but said he isn’t about to change his style to satisfy Washington elites.
“If people are looking for more polish and more kind of conventional statecraft and that’s their metric for Trump learning, I think they’re going to be disappointed,” he said.
“I don’t think he sees those as faux-pas, I think he sees them as ‘look, I do things differently.’ If you say, ‘that’s not how things are done,’ he says, ‘who says? Where is it written down that I can’t do that?’”
A White House official also says Trump, as a former jet-setting global businessman, understands how time zones work but doesn’t dwell on such details when he wants to talk to a foreign leader.
“He’s the president of the United States. He’s not stopping to add up” time differences, the official said.
“I don’t think anybody would expect him or Obama or Bush or Clinton or anybody to do that. That’s the whole reason you have a staff to say ‘yes, we’ll set it up,’ and then they find a time that makes most sense.”
Trump’s apparent ignorance about world affairs, geography and leaders has also repeatedly emerged in internal staff meetings.
Ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2017 White House visit, Trump asked his national security aides whether the Indian leader would be bringing along his wife. Staffers explained that Modi has long been estranged from his wife.
“Ah, I think I can set him up with somebody,” Trump joked, according to two people briefed on the meeting. It was in that same meeting that Trump appeared confused by Nepal and Bhutan, which lie sandwiched between India and China.
“He didn’t know what those were. He thought it was all part of India,” said one person familiar with the meeting.
“He was like, ‘What is this stuff in between and these other countries?’”
Another former Trump NSC official said that Trump sometimes avoids saying certain words or names when talking to a foreign leader because he’s unsure whether he can pronounce them properly. The White House official said Trump always wants to be respectful and make sure he gets pronunciations right.
At times he wings it with unfortunate results. Meeting with a group of African countries at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump, in public remarks, referred to the country of Namibia as “Nambia”.
(Trump did impress some of his own aides in the meeting, however.
“He did a very good job of saying Cote D’Ivoire,” said one.)
Trump also raised eyebrows during the same gathering when he announced that “I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you” – prompting cringes among some aides aware how such talk would resonate on a continent that well remembers the exploitations of its colonial era.
(Some African entrepreneurs said they appreciated the comment.)
When Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte visited the White House last month, Trump congratulated him on his “tremendous victory” even though the Italian had never campaigned for office or run in Italy’s election.
(Conte was actually a compromise candidate by two parties that came out on top in the election.)
Trump at times also betrays an ignorance of regional history and rivalries. During his meeting with Abe at Mar-a-Lago in April this year, Trump repeatedly praised Chinese strongman Xi Jinping, according to a former NSC official from a prior administration.
“Everyone was cringing because Japan and China are rivals and the Japanese and the Chinese are nervous about the president tilting too far towards the other side,” that person said.
A White House official said Trump explained to Abe that his relationship with Xi would be useful in dealing with North Korea and insisted it “wasn’t considered a negative” by the Japanese side.
At times Trump has done more than make ignorant slips: The Washington Post reported in January that he sometimes puts on an Indian accent and imitates the way Modi speaks.
And in an infamous Oval Office remark in January that sparked a global furore, Trump branded several African nations along with Haiti and El Salvador as “shithole countries”.
Some foreign diplomats report positive experiences with Trump. One who has met with Trump at the White House praised him as a “gracious” host.
Another recalled a warm personal welcome from the president, who showed him and colleagues around the White House.
And it is true that every president makes mistakes in dealing with foreign leaders as they learn on the job.
President Barack Obama made his share of incorrect pronunciations, including by mangling the former long-time Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s name in 2016. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush famously stumbled through a TV interviewer’s pop quiz on the names of several world leaders.
Past presidents have also called foreign leaders at odd hours – in their own time zones. President Bill Clinton was notorious for that practice, according to James P. Rubin, a former assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration.
Before the signing of a key 1999 peace agreement in Northern Ireland, Clinton placed overseas calls until 2:30am Washington time – well after most of his aides were asleep.
Trump’s love of talking on the phone has created special problems for his top national security officials, who say that he sometimes places calls that have no clear diplomatic purpose.
Trump has what one former Trump national security official calls a “bizarre” fascination with calling French President Emmanuel Macron.
“He wanted to talk to him constantly … Macron would be like: ‘Hey what are we talking about?’ These are very busy people. You don’t just call to check in,” the official said.
(The White House official said Macron has requested a majority of the calls.)
The former official said that, in his first year at least, Trump would often call foreign leaders having done little preparation or pre-planned outcomes known to diplomats as “deliverables”.
“The standard is you don’t have your principal call unless you’re asking for something or trying to reward a behaviour, either a carrot or a stick. You don’t just randomly call,” the former official said.
The same can apply to meetings. While Trump’s aides have successfully prevented him from rousing Abe out of bed, Japanese officials – though eager for a close relationship with the president – have also been exhausted by him.
Abe has met with Trump seven times one-on-one, but a former National Security Council official from a prior administration said that Japanese diplomats joke that “he’s had one meeting with Trump seven times because he’s got to go back over the same issues every time.”
Abe and his aides have avoided telling Trump that he contacts them too often for fear of harming their friendly relationship, according to another former NSC official.
The White House official said that trade and North Korea come up in every meeting between Trump and Abe and that the men have a strong relationship.
Before foreign calls and meetings, Trump often peppers staffers with questions about the country’s economy and trade balances with the US In discussions with foreign leaders, Trump often cites the trade deficit between the US and the other leader’s nation.
His figures are sometimes inaccurate, according to two foreign policy experts with ties to the Trump White House.
In one case, Trump has openly admitted to fabricating trade figures, bragging to Republican Party donors that he had knowingly told Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the falsehood that the US has a trade deficit with Canada.
Trudeau challenged Trump on his trade data. But some foreign leaders are reluctant to speak up. “Some world leaders feel like he goes on autopilot and makes factual errors but they don’t want to correct him and don’t want to set him off,” said one of the foreign policy experts.
Trump also has a keen interest in US arms sales abroad.
“Who do we sell more weapons to?” he asked during one conversation about two nations. NSC officials have had to explain to Trump that some arms sales pitches were likely to fall flat, particularly in the case of nations that are major weapons producers themselves.
The White House official pointed out that Trump has had recent success in agreements to sell American weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia, Poland, Netherlands and Finland.
Trump’s disregard for diplomatic convention can have some unexpected – even humanitarian – results.
After a major foreign earthquake last year, Trump told aides he wanted to send a fleet of aid-bearing Air Force planes to the scene immediately, according to a former national security official.
“And everybody’s like, that’s not appropriate, wait until [that] government asks us for stuff, they may not need these planes,” the official said.
“‘No, I want to send something now,’” Trump insisted.
The White House official added that Trump doesn’t want to navigate “9,000 layers” of bureaucracy in a crisis.
“The president doesn’t like to be constrained by past practices and protocols,” the official said.