U.S. President Donald Trump’s first national security scare went down in style, five-star style in fact, when news of the North Korean ballistic missile test came through during his bro-bonding session with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago holiday resort.
It was confirmed that the North Koreans had launched a Musudan-level missile that flew 310 miles before crashing into Japanese waters, just an hour before Trump and Abe were scheduled to sit down to a decadent working-dinner at the Floridian resort, affectionately dubbed the ‘winter White House’.
Despite being briefed on the unexpected provocation, they decided to go ahead with the dinner plans without addressing reporters.
Swanning through the club’s living room and main dining area alongside Abe, Trump was swamped with paying members and skilfully ignored inquisitive reporters.
But as the pair commenced their meal, it was clear Abe felt it necessary to respond to the test.
According to CNN, the pair were just starting on their iceberg wedge salads when the dinner erupted into an impromptu strategy session with both Japanese and American aides descending on the table, turning the club terrace into an open-air White House meeting room.
Not only was the session carried out in plain view of other diners, it also made its way on to social media with a number of guests posting photos of the immediate flurry of activity.
The memes and jokes have since been coming thick and fast.
“Who ordered the shrimp, and who launched the ballistic missile?” pic.twitter.com/i0OymVsoYC
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) February 14, 2017
While White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has stressed that no classified information was discussed at the strategy session, one has to wonder what the President of the United States was doing holding any strategy session on a club terrace surrounded by onlookers while waiters continue to serve their meal.
— Enrique Acevedo (@Enrique_Acevedo) February 13, 2017
The gravity of the situation appears lost on Trump when fine dining takes precedent over addressing the world media of a breaking national security incident. And it is the photo above in particular that seems to sum up that thinking.
While chaos ensues around him and the Japanese Prime Minister and White House aides rush to contain the situation, Trump stares calmly into an on-looking camera with an expression that one might describe as either smugness or complete disregard for the seriousness of the situation.
Considering his reaction, it begs the questions – is he taking this whole presidency thing seriously?
There have been a few alarm bells along the way that suggest Trump hasn’t yet grasped the magnitude of his position. He’s been accused of not attending security briefings, he still admits to learning a lot of his information from Fox News and the Breitbart website, and, according to a recent New York Times report, key briefing documents have been shortened and loaded up with visuals – because that’s the way the president likes them.
And it’s not just his nonchalant approach to intelligence that has people worried about his earnestness.
While he’s been knocking out executive orders to fulfil his campaign promises at home, his approach to foreign affairs has been a little more erratic, especially in Asia, leaving many leaders unclear on the approach he plans to take in the region.
The inconsistent and sometimes contradictory moves coming from the White House has left many regional powers unnerved as it seems his direction has taken a U-turn from the bombastic rhetoric he spouted when he was president-elect.
His fighting talk on Japan seemed to disappear into the ether this weekend as Trump and Abe wined and dined at his Florida resort.
As a candidate, Trump decried Japan for currency manipulation, claimed they needed to pay more for their own defence, accused them of stealing U.S. jobs and suggested that they, along with neighbours South Korea, might need nuclear weapons to protect themselves.
These pledges seem to have been set aside on meeting the prime minister, however, with Trump declaring his support for Japan and reinforcing U.S. commitment to their security.
A similar approach seems to be forming with regard to China.
In the past, Trump has accused them of currency manipulation as well as called into question the status quo over Taiwan and the “one China” policy, a red line for Beijing.
His controversial appointment of Peter Navarro as head of his national trade council, the author of the menacingly titled book ‘Death by China’, also added to the contentious narrative. And comments from both Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implying that conflict between the two was inevitable all accumulated to give a convincing impression of fighting talk.
But the world has been seeing a different tack being taken by Trump following his “cordial” phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which he backtracked on past aspersions and agreed to honour the “one China” policy.
In a statement read out on Chinese state television, Xi said China appreciated Trump’s upholding of the “one China” policy.
“I believe that the United States and China are cooperative partners, and through joint efforts we can push bilateral relations to a historic new high,” the statement cited Xi as saying.
“The development of China and the United States absolutely can complement each other and advance together. Both sides absolutely can become very good cooperative partners,” Xi said.
Lawyer James Zimmerman, the former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, told Reuters: “The end result is that Trump just confirmed to the world that he is a paper tiger, a ‘zhilaohu’ – someone that seems threatening but is wholly ineffectual and unable to stomach a challenge.”
In each situation Trump has shown that he was all too eager to talk tough before taking office, but was also willing to abandon his tough-guy rhetoric when confronted with diplomatic pressure.
There seems to be in the White House two versions of Trump; one bent on upending longstanding U.S. diplomacy, and another that yields in the face of world leaders. Which one will make his appearance on the world stage, it’s hard to tell.
His flip-flopping and seeming pandering to world leaders could signify a number of things.
Firstly, it is almost impossible to know if Trump actually means what he says. Recent history shows Trump’s statements carry little or no binding precedential value and observers cannot assume that he will hold himself to them in the future. Talk is cheap in the world of Trump, and this unconventional president may well still change his mind or offer a new interpretation of his statements further down the line.
It is also possible Trump’s reversal of his earlier off-the-cuff remarks shows a reassuring indication that there is a bigger strategy at play of which the world is not yet fully aware. We will have to wait and see, as only time will tell if he will continue with the diplomatic pivot to Asia we have seen in recent weeks. If this continues, it is a hopeful sign that on important issues he ultimately will listen to his cabinet officers, even if he remains stubborn about acknowledging mistakes or correcting himself.
But there’s also the possibility that these are symptoms of a fickle White House, one that has no clear direction and one that, perhaps, is headed by a leader who doesn’t quite yet understand the enormity of his actions.