How to Stay One Step Ahead of Donald Trump
Saudi leaders have figured out what makes the president tick like few others have.
The joke, a throwaway quip, somehow captured the man and the moment—the end of one era, and the beginning of another. It was January 2017, and then–British Prime Minister Theresa May was in the White House, the first foreign leader to visit the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. For May, the trip had gone well: Pleasantries had been exchanged, faux pas avoided, commitments to NATO and the special relationship gleaned. Then came the press conference.
“Mr. President,” the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, called on by May, began, “you’ve said before that torture works; you’ve praised Russia; you’ve said you want to ban some Muslims from coming to America; you’ve suggested there should be punishment for abortion. For many people in Britain, those sound like alarming beliefs. What do you say to our viewers at home who are worried about some of your views and are worried about you becoming the leader of the free world?” A momentary silence followed. Smiling, Trump turned to his guest: “This was your choice of a question?” The room burst into laughter. Then came the punch line: “There goes that relationship.”
Trump’s remark may have been lighthearted, but it was also revealing: Here was a man who did not behave like a normal politician. He was unpredictable, uncontrollable, wild, and sometimes, yes, even funny. And yet he had an unmistakable streak of malice. Given the chance to ad-lib, Trump had joked that all it took was a tough question and the special relationship was off. It was funny because it pierced the tension in the room, but also because there was a ring of truth to it.
Every world leader since has faced the same problem: How do you handle a man like Trump? Britain, with its special relationship and deep connections to the U.S., seemed particularly well suited to the game at hand, given the new president’s support for Brexit and his familial connection to Scotland through his mother. Yet the story of his presidency has been one of British diplomatic failure, not success. Years of directionless prevaricating in London were compounded by a turgid, inflexible, and unimaginative diplomatic effort in Washington. The result: Britain has achieved little of substance—whether on trade, Iran, the climate, or Russia.
Since May’s visit, Britain’s influence in Washington has slumped. But a few countries have made significant diplomatic gains over the course of the Trump presidency—Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, and North Korea among them—by working with the president, his family, and friends in ways the European powers have not.
To understand who played the Great Trump Game well and what lessons can be drawn from their success, we spoke with more than a dozen current and former diplomats and officials in the U.S. and abroad, some who are still serving, others retired. Many of those we interviewed have worked directly with Trump and his administration, and the majority asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly. We also spoke with foreign-policy analysts, politicians, and political aides on both sides of the Atlantic to understand the long-term implications of Trump’s time in office. While the picture that emerges is a patchwork quilt of seemingly random American diplomatic achievements and failures, at least one clear pattern can be discerned: Hard men—they were all men—and dictators with deals to strike did well; Europeans who rely on history, democratic traditions, values, and strategic alliances did badly.
To get ahead in Trump’s Washington, the lesson for other countries’ leaders and diplomats is clear: You need to have something to sell and the connections to sell it.
Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu had a direct line to the president and used it—Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem was a major victory. Saudi Arabia has similarly close ties to the Trump family through the president’s son-in-law and do-it-all adviser Jared Kushner and reaped the rewards, despite being caught decapitating and dismembering a Washington Post journalist. India has been “masterful” in its diplomatic strategy, according to one admiring diplomat, culminating in Narendra Modi’s trip to Texas last year and Trump’s state visit to Delhi in February. Turkey emerged with significant geopolitical gains in Syria, while North Korea has won previously undreamed-of status without giving away anything in return.
Of America’s obvious adversaries, Russia remains the conundrum through its inexplicable hold over Trump. Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to win favor without the fawning demanded of other states. And the only real strategic rival to U.S. hegemony—China—has suffered relentless criticism from the Republican Party, and at times become a lightning rod for the president’s animosity, but has continued to rise nonetheless.
The problem for old American allies such as Britain, France, Germany, and even Australia, according to those who have worked closely with Trump, is that the president sees international relations as a series of business deals in which there are winners and losers. In his world, strategy, alliances, and values mean little.
One former White House official told The Atlantic that Trump’s weakness is that his only yardstick is money. “Part of the reason for that is he’s absolutely, totally unaware of history,” this former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to candidly relate private deliberations. “He doesn’t know, for example, why the Korean War happened, why there was an armistice.” Privately, the former official continued, Trump would question what had happened in the two world wars and why the U.S. military maintained permanent bases in Europe.
“He doesn’t have a strategic vision at all. If it’s anything, it’s to have other countries pay—plus 50 percent.” According to the former official, Trump sees in autocratic leaders such as Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and China’s Xi Jinping—as Trump would put it—“killer business guys like me.”
In the Trump storm, the structures of American power, such as the professional foreign-policy apparatus, have been blown away. In their place, personality, politics, family, and money have come to the fore. “What Trump basically did was emasculate the rest of the diplomatic corps and all the elements of the U.S. government, so that everybody has to talk to Trump if they really want to know what’s going to happen,” Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and former national-security official under President George W. Bush, told us in an interview. Some countries have thrived in this environment; many others have had to make do with surviving.
Among those that managed to succeed, a pattern largely holds: You need an autocratic leader, a close connection to the Trump family, or a deal the president can hail as a victory. Ideally, you have all three. Perhaps the best example of this is Saudi Arabia. “The Saudis are doing business with us the way people do business with the Saudis,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and an official in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, told us. “They’re saying, ‘Okay, the United States has become like us. It’s being run by a family. So we will deal with the family.’”
Trump was an early fan of Saudi Arabia. He made Riyadh his first foreign stop as president and his hosts pampered him, projecting a five-story image of him onto the hotel where he stayed and presenting him with a gold medallion that is the country’s highest civilian honor. Not even the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was enough to deter a president focused on future deals. By then, Kushner was already close to the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And in a statement largely absolving the Saudis of the Khashoggi killing, Trump explicitly referenced the $450 billion the kingdom had “agreed to spend and invest” in the U.S., including a sum on military equipment. Autocracy. Familial ties. Business deals.
For Israel, too, an early bet on Trump has paid off. “Once it became clear that the Palestinian issue was going to be run out of the White House and the secretary of state would have nothing to do with it, [Netanyahu], who already had a relationship with Jared, essentially works the White House,” said Haass, author of The World: A Brief Introduction, published this year. “It’s the deinstitutionalization of foreign policy. That’s what we’re seeing here.”
Israel is by no measure an autocracy, yet it meets the other two criteria—family ties and dealmaking: Netanyahu is an old friend of the Kushner family, who once slept in Kushner’s bedroom during a visit to New Jersey (leaving Jared to sleep in the basement). The Israeli leader also succeeded in persuading Trump to move the American embassy, and indulged Trump’s futile effort to strike “the deal of the century”—a Middle East peace plan. After its release in January, the proposal was immediately rejected by Palestinian leaders who saw it as too favorable to Israel, and since then it has mostly been ignored.
Cha told us that world leaders who had done well for their country in the Trump era had discovered that some combination of these attributes was ripe for potential rewards, and many had arrived at the same strategy: Dress up your own national agenda as Trump’s and give the president all the credit for what you wanted in the first place. The Japanese, South Koreans, and North Koreans have been particularly adept at this game, Cha said. (The notable exception to this trend is Mexico, which has consistently found itself under attack from the White House, but did not pay for a wall it didn’t want, and whose president had a largely controversy-free visit to Washington in July.)
A second former senior White House official said the importance of personal connections to the president was perhaps the key difference between prior administrations and Trump’s. “The Emiratis, the Saudis, and particularly the Israelis were very adept at cultivating those relationships,” this former official said. “The joke is that the U.S. ambassador to Israel doesn’t have a role, because the prime minister can go directly to Washington for everything.”
In Washington, the extent to which Trump’s family inserted itself into foreign policy was a source of frustration to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others. Tillerson once entered a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and the proprietor came over to tell him that his Mexican counterpart, Luis Videgaray, was also dining there. When Tillerson walked over to say hello, he found Kushner sitting at the same table. “I could see the color go out of” Videgaray’s face, Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “As it turned out later,” Tillerson continued, “the foreign secretary was operating on the assumption that everything he was talking to Mr. Kushner about had been run through the State Department and that I was fully on board with it. And he was rather shocked to find out that when he started telling me all these things that were news to me, I told him, ‘This is the first time I’m hearing of it.’” The first former White House official, meanwhile, recalled a meeting in Buenos Aires in 2018, during which Trump told Xi that Kushner would be involved in trade negotiations between the two countries. “I tell you,” this ex-official said, “they (the Chinese) brightened up, because they knew they could work him.”
Over the course of this presidency, many foreign capitals appear to have realized how dependent they were on the whims of Trump’s temper or their ability to work family networks, and thus have sought strategies to hedge their bets with other centers of American power and influence, principally Congress. U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, told us in an interview that he had been getting lots of attention and requests for meetings in the Trump era. “It’s been a remarkable three years, and the list is long of ambassadors trying to get in to see me and have conversations to try to move the needle,” Coons said. “They’re looking for stability and reassurance in these relationships that have gone on for decades and are foundational to our security and prosperity.”
Precisely that kind of decades-long foundational relationship is what European allies had long depended on, and the reliance on those strategic ties appears to have been their undoing during this administration. None of Europe’s biggest countries had expected a Trump victory. The second ex–White House official said that, more than most, Britain, France, and Germany had sought to intensify their efforts with Congress because of the limited headway they were making with Trump, particularly in preserving the Iranian nuclear deal and avoiding the imposition of tariffs. Congress was the only avenue left because making progress with the Trump administration was so difficult, Cha told us.
The problem for traditional U.S. allies—Britain, France, and Germany, but also Japan and Australia—is that, unlike the quick hit of a diplomatic breakthrough with Trump, building support in Congress is slow.
For European powers, the trials and tribulations of the Trump era offer a salutary lesson in international relations: National interest remains king.
While Trump has been explicit in this transactional view, showing little interest in notions of shared values or enduring alliances forged after the Second World War, in many respects his outlook is just a more extreme (and, so far, glaringly unsuccessful) version of that pursued by all U.S. presidents.
Even at the height of the Anglo-American alliance during the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt coldly pursued American national interest in the struggle against Nazi Germany. Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, quickly sidelined Britain after the war to deal directly with Moscow, reflecting the new reality of the world. Soon after, Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of D-Day, left Britain in the lurch in Suez in 1956, before John F. Kennedy canceled a missile program seen as vital to Britain’s national security, leading to vitriolic British headlines about the president’s Irish heritage. Those would find an unlikely echo almost six decades later when Boris Johnson, then not yet prime minister, accused Barack Obama of harboring an ancestral dislike for Britain because of his Kenyan father. Today, in British diplomatic circles, the changing demographic makeup of the U.S. is cited as a challenge, as the old elite ties that once bound Washington and London have been replaced by a more diverse America’s new connections to Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.
For Britain, though, such concerns are little more than a fig leaf to cover underlying tensions. As early as 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, whose father was English, ordered officials to stop talking about a “special relationship” with Britain, arguing the term gave the false impression that it trumped other alliances. This is not, then, the first time that Britain’s influence in Washington—indeed, like any other state—has rested on its own short-term strength and usefulness. Ties at the highest level improved when Tony Blair stood alongside Bush during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, whereas in the two decades since, Britain’s willingness to engage on the world stage (and thus its usefulness) has deteriorated.
Trump’s bellicosity may have spooked European states, including Britain, whose security is dependent on American goodwill and support, but according to those we spoke with, the past three years have only emphasized the structural problem Europe’s premier powers already faced. Ultimately, these countries cannot expect to continue wielding special influence in Washington if they do not offer special benefits to the U.S. in return. And on this score, Europe’s worth to Washington has been deteriorating as the principal strategic threat to American interests moves away from Europe’s borders to the South China Sea. No talk about history, kinship, shared values, or the rules-based international order can hide this reality.
One British official said a number of core diplomatic challenges for London would continue beyond 2020, whatever happened in the presidential election. Unless the country addresses its shrinking military capacity and its perceived unreliability as a foreign-policy and security partner, Britain’s influence will continue to suffer. The official said Britain needs to be more assertive about what it brings to the table, and to acknowledge that it remains overwhelmingly in Britain’s national interest for the U.S. to remain the preeminent global power—not China. But to begin with, this official said, London needs to be honest about the damage its military cuts have caused.
The U.K.’s failures in the Trump era are symptomatic of a deeper malaise in its foreign policy, according to conversations with multiple influential British officials close to Johnson. In this view, Britain has struggled under Trump because its embassy has forgotten how to fight to be heard, and how to build a broad base of support in Congress and American society, while others such as India, Greece, Ireland, and Israel put great stock in their networks on the Hill and pulled ahead. The British embassy, we were told by two separate high-ranking and influential figures, has been too passive in its efforts for too long.
Now overtaken, Britain faces the nightmare scenario of becoming associated with Trump, having desperately sought to win him over, in the eyes of a Democratic Party that may soon hold the keys to both the White House and Congress. As a result, Britain may soon find itself with an entirely new set of challenges, and the same set of core strategic weaknesses as before.
European capitals, according to the first former White House official who spoke with us, have concluded that Trump is a “complete aberration.” The former official continued: “They’re saying, ‘This is a one-off. There’s not another man on the planet like this guy.’ Consequently, when he leaves office, the Americans will rebuild these relationships.”
That may well be the case if Trump were to lose his bid for reelection in November, but what if he prevails? “He’s done damage,” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who was ousted last year and went on to release a tell-all book, told us. “After one term, the damage can be repaired fairly easily. What bothers me is the risk of a second term, where I think the damage may not be so easily repaired. And that could cause lasting harm, which is one reason I’m not going to vote for him in November.”
Still, whether in 2020 or 2024, Trump will leave office at some point, and American foreign-policy making will continue. The Washington game is much longer than the presidency of one man. “Personal relationships are important,” Antony Blinken, a senior foreign-policy adviser to the Biden campaign and a former foreign-policy official in the Obama administration, said, “but if they’re the sum and substance of your foreign policy, you’re going to have a problem.”
For the past three years, leaders, ambassadors, and kings have competed in the Great Trump Game for influence and favor. Deals have been made, egos burned, reputations burnished, careers trashed. Yet the underlying reality is that Trump did not change the nature of the game itself. In his pantomime mendacity, he managed to reveal what had been shrouded in politeness before: British weakness, European incoherence, and Chinese power. The president might have created new ways of winning and losing, but in the end he did not build a new world—he exposed the nature of the one that already existed.