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Trump Focus Pivots To Foreign Policy Priorities


The Egyptian president is 1 of 3 world leaders meeting with President Trump this week. The king of Jordan visits the White House on Wednesday, and China's president will be a guest at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida at the end of the week.

For more on the president's emerging foreign policy agenda, we're joined in the studio by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hiya.


SIEGEL: The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping is highly anticipated given Trump's tough rhetoric on China. In fact, even he has admitted this is going to be a tough meeting. What are you watching for?

LIASSON: You know, like so much else, there is this huge gap between what Donald Trump said during the campaign and since and what he has done. So I'm watching to see if there's any clues about whether that gap closes. During the campaign and after the campaign, Trump said he would not reaffirm the One China policy unless he got something on trade or North Korea from China, but then he did reaffirm it without seeming to get anything unless this meeting is what he got.

He also promised to declare China a currency manipulator on day one. That hasn't happened. The Commerce Department is actually looking into possibly upgrading China's trading status, which would end up with reduced tariffs. And then this weekend in an interview with The Financial Times, he said if China doesn't fix the North Korea issue, the U.S. will act on its own. Does that mean he was talking about preemptive military action? He said he didn't want to say any more.

So we do know that President Obama during the transition told Donald Trump that North Korea was the most pressing national security threat given its rapidly advancing nuclear program. Now the president has indicated that the strategy of both parties previously, which was a strategy of strategic patience, is going to end. I'm wondering what will replace it, and will we get any clues on Friday?

SIEGEL: Well, while the president is hosting leaders in the U.S., one of his top advisers, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, showed up in Iraq today with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. What is Kushner doing there?

LIASSON: He's there at the invitation of the chairman. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is learning, like foreign leaders, that the best way to communicate with Trump is through his son-in-law, who's his closest adviser. He has his ear in every way. Unlike other top advisers, for instance Steve Bannon or Reince Priebus, Jared Kushner cannot and will not be fired. He is a 36-year-old real estate scion with no previous foreign policy experience, and he has an extremely large portfolio. He's in charge of the Middle East and China and Mexico. Now he's got Iraq.

There have been in the past many top advisers who were sort of first friends whose qualifications above all was the trust of the president - Valerie Jarrett, for instance, under President Obama. But I can't think of one with as big and important portfolio especially in an area that is so undefined as Donald Trump's foreign policy.

SIEGEL: Well, does that bulging portfolio of Jared Kushner tell us anything about the direction that Trump's foreign policy may go?

LIASSON: Well, we know there's an ideological split in the White House. There's a New York wing - more moderate former Democrats like Kushner and Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council - versus the nationalist wing led by Steve Bannon. Lately Trump seems to be taking a step away from that anti-globalist, nationalist view.

In that Financial Times interview, he backed off on his tough talk on Brexit. He said the center is holding in Europe. He said The EU is now doing a better job. Before, he seemed to be looking forward to its breakup. It doesn't look like he's going to force Mexico to pay for the wall. He's only pushing modest changes in NAFTA, not renegotiating it. In the Middle East, he seems to be going back to something more or less like the Obama policy.

So it seems like at least for now, Trump's bark might be worse than his bite. This is not a wholesale departure from the foreign policy of his predecessor that he called stupid over and over again during the campaign, at least not yet.

SIEGEL: Of course foreign policy is an area where the president has a lot of control. But what about the home front where his agenda has been stalled?

LIASSON: Well, he's going to get a big win in the Senate this week with the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch. It might be a bloody victory, but he'll get it. And after that stinging defeat on health care last week and the unclear path forward on tax reform, Donald Trump this morning was tweeting about Hillary Clinton's Russia connections and asking if she would apologize for getting the questions in advance during a Democratic primary debate. So he's tweeting about those things even in a week where he's meeting with the president of China, the most important bilateral relationship for a U.S. president. So those are the things that are on his mind.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.