[Editor’s note: In governments around the world, intelligence agencies produce “leadership profiles” of foreign heads of state and other key figures. These assessments are provided to senior policymakers to inform their interactions with foreign counterparts and their decision-making involving the other country. In this piece, Ned Price, a former CIA and NSC official, provides a simulation of how a foreign intelligence service might assess President Donald Trump.]
Name: Donald J. Trump
Position: President of the United States
Addressed As: “Mr. President”
DOB: June 14, 1946
Languages Spoken: English
To: The Prime Minister
From: Your National Security Advisor
Date: August 8, 2017
Your upcoming meeting with President Donald Trump is a high-risk but potentially high-reward endeavor, whose outcome is difficult to predict or control. What is sufficiently diagnosable, however, are the President’s motivations, an understanding of which can provide a roadmap to try to ensure the meeting concludes to our advantage. Indeed, grasping how to most effectively engage President Trump, by many accounts an easy feat, can increase the likelihood that “America First”—the moniker applied to the Trump administration’s foreign policy—remains nothing more than a campaign slogan.
First, you should be careful not to confuse your upcoming meeting with President Trump as an opportunity to discuss policy in-depth. Should President Trump’s aides—including his new Chief of Staff, General John Kelly—intervene to keep the session on-track, there may well be an opportunity to discuss the most salient issues in the bilateral relationship. To help ensure the discussion is effective and understood by all participants and that existing points of agreement between our two countries are not unsettled, it is optimal to keep the issues at a 20,000-foot level.
But judging by the tenor of President Trump’s bilateral meetings to-date, the session will be an opportunity primarily to establish personal rapport between the two of you and for senior staff on each side to develop relationships and engage in substance with one another. Indeed, other Heads of State have been able to make the most out of their bilateral meetings, cementing a strong personal bond. Among those who have left their introductory meetings with closer personal ties to President Trump are President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, President Xi Jinping of China, and, in his second meeting, President Emmanuel Macron of France. As you know, with the exception of France, we have strained relations with all of them, as do most of our Western counterparts. However, President Macron set a good example of ways that flattery, physical strength, and glamor do not hurt in an effort to win over this American President.
In contrast, those who appeared to put a premium on policy discussions—while giving short shrift to rapport-building and other intangibles—found themselves with a sense of being somewhat unwelcome within the White House, whose leadership famously harbors long-term grudges. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, one of President Obama and President George W. Bush’s closest and most trusted interlocutors and the de facto leader of an integrated Europe, is a cautionary tale. Her first meeting with President Trump ended without a customary handshake or much eye contact. Our intelligence analysts who have studied President Trump’s public record and time in office cannot exclude gender as a key factor undergirding the success or failure of his bilateral meetings.
The key, then, is to be more like Putin and less like Merkel in your interaction with President Trump, which you can do by bearing in mind the following principles:
Our analysts assess that President Trump, despite his bluster and bravado, is deeply insecure. His career in business and much shorter time in politics suggest there is practically no slight—real or perceived—too small to damage or derail the relationship. For example, he has filed lawsuits against those who have questioned his net worth, frequently hails his electoral college victory (probably knowing full well he lost the popular vote by significant margin), and, as some have speculated, even his timing and decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord may have been motivated in part to spite Merkel. It is, therefore, important that you do all you can to play to his sense of self. When he shows you a map depicting his electoral college victory, for example, you should react with amazement, perhaps even adopting his own adjective “unprecedented” (N.B.: It is not, but President Trump surely will not correct you). And, to be sure, a brief compliment of the accommodations at the Trump Hotel, where you will be staying per the recommendation of our ambassador in Washington, will be helpful in appealing to the President. We have no reason to think he would rebuff such a comment or indicate it is inappropriate.
Relatedly, President Trump is very concerned about appearing strong, and others appear to benefit from ingratiating themselves by playing into the personality he has attempted to construct. This could well be your most difficult task; his affinity for autocrats can pose a challenge to democratically-elected leaders seeking warm relations with this White House. You should, however, attempt to identify some areas of common ground. Complaining about the negative media coverage you receive back home could be a good start. If President Trump raises his concerns about coverage by news media, you might respond that he is an object of attention and fascination among our citizenry. (You need not detail why that is the case, and you should, of course, avoid the conversation turning to his deep unpopularity in our country). Perhaps the best encapsulation of the President’s sense of self was his claim on the campaign trail that he alone could fix what purportedly ailed America. Playing into this, you might note that President Trump broke the mold with his election, and that he undoubtedly brings a unique set of talents to the office. He is certain to take such remarks as a compliment. You can also refer in a general sense to his success in breaking “old Washington DC norms,” which in some cases is actually beneficial and you can avoid discussing the multiple ways in which it is not.
When it comes to policy discussions, President Trump will be excessively focused on being able to present a win to his political base. Nevertheless, that does not mean that you will need to fold in any given area. To the contrary, you should be ready to offer an optical victory—in other words, something the President can trumpet as a sign of his negotiating talents even if, over the medium- to longer-term, the arrangement is unmistakably to our benefit. Last December, for example, President Trump touted with extraordinary fanfare an arrangement with Carrier, the American manufacturer, which purportedly would save more than 1,000 jobs slated for relocation to Mexico. The media coverage—even from outlets that were regularly critical of him—was fawning. Nevertheless, six months later, union officials announced that, despite the massive incentives, most of those jobs will still go to Mexico. President Trump’s silence has suggested that he does not mind the outcome, knowing that he was able to present a much publicized win at the outset. Much the same can be said of his continued public focus on the aspirational border wall with Mexico. He was clear with Mexican President Pena-Nieto in their introductory phone call that Mexico need not pay for the wall as long as he can continue using that line as a political talking point. Orchestrating a similar arrangement—something that costs us little or nothing and reflects well in the short term on President Trump—should be imminently achievable, perhaps even in multiple arenas.
Finally, and most importantly, you must not lose sight of our analysts’ assessment that President Trump’s most, important short- and long-term asset is his corporate empire. The President often appears to treat his role in the White House almost as an avocation or burden with his real passion remaining the real estate conglomerate he inherited from his father. Indeed, those leaders with whom President Trump has forged good relations despite the odds—including President Erdogan of Turkey and President Duterte of the Philippines—play host to Trump properties. We judge this is likely not a coincidence. While there are no Trump properties on our soil at present, you might mention the number of undeveloped areas in our hinterlands that would make for magnificent golf clubs or hotels. You could say at a later date you would appreciate his advice on planning such real estate development. Dropping such a hint has no downsides and can only help ensure that President Trump maintains stable relations with us.
Finally, we should add a special note about our analytic sources and methods. Psychological and psychiatric professional associations, with a notable recent exception, have decided their members should not comment publicly on President Trump’s mental state since they have not evaluated him personally. Our assessment of President Trump, similar to all our assessments of foreign leaders, draws on the expertise of psychologists and psychiatrists who are consultants or employees of our security services, and their judgments should be kept close-hold.
Image: President Donald Trump walks into the Diplomatic Receiving Room of the White House, Friday, March 17, 2017 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)