Advertisement

Trump said he left his seat at G-20 dinner because the Japanese first lady spoke no English. She's pretty fluent

President Trump said Wednesday that a lack of English conversational skills on the part of Akie Abe, the wife of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, prompted him to leave his spot next to her at dinner at an international summit and talk with Vladimir Putin, instead. (July 20, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

It's yet another element of mystery concerning President Trump and Vladimir Putin — this one centering on the quality of dinner-party chitchat.

Trump says he went over to speak with the Russian president during a dinner in Germany earlier this month because he was unable to speak to his seat mate, the wife of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Advertisement

Akie Abe "doesn't speak English … like, not 'Hello,'" Trump told the New York Times in an interview Wednesday.

Not so.

Mrs. Abe, the daughter of a wealthy Japanese family, attended a private Roman Catholic international school in Tokyo before she attended college. The elementary-through-high-school academy, the Sacred Heart School, includes rigorous English-language instruction as part of its curriculum.

Social media swiftly found clips of the 55-year-old Abe making speeches in somewhat accented but perfectly serviceable English.

Trump's dinnertime encounter with Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg — against the backdrop of a burgeoning investigation of Russian meddling in last year's presidential election — has come under close scrutiny because the White House did not disclose it for 10 days. Also, no other U.S. official, not even an interpreter, was privy to the conversation.

Putin — who is known to speak English, but sticks to Russian in official settings — used his own interpreter during the dinnertime talk, and there is no U.S. record of what was said other than Trump's assertion in the interview that the two leaders discussed adoption.

Some social media users gleefully interpreted Trump's contention that he and Akie Abe were unable to converse as proof that she would prefer to feign incomprehension of English than to engage in conversation with him.

Trump's behavior with the spouses of world leaders has been a recent talking point, after the president commented during a trip to Paris earlier this month on the physical appearance of France's first lady, Brigitte Macron.

It seems unlikely, however, that Akie Abe deliberately snubbed Trump.

Even if the Japanese first lady had decided she could express herself better in her native language, there was an interpreter available to assist her as needed. In his interview with the Times, Trump acknowledged the availability of translation assistance, saying that "otherwise, it would have been even tougher."

Even if the conversational flow did falter, Japanese cultural mores dictate that it would be almost unheard of for a public figure like the first lady, taking part in conversation in a formal social setting, to behave with deliberate rudeness.

Akie Abe also once worked as a radio disc jockey, pointing to a likely ability to engage in patter when necessary. (Her on-air name was "Akky," a shortening of the three-syllable pronunciation of her first name in Japanese.)

Moreover, the G-20 summit was not the first time Trump had met her; the two have even been dinner companions before. The Japanese first lady accompanied her husband on a trip to the United States in February. In Florida, she and Melania Trump toured Japanese-inspired gardens together while their husbands golfed. And the two couples dined together at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, with photographs showing her seated next to the president.

Advertisement
President Trump with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Akie Abe, right, at dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in February.
President Trump with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Akie Abe, right, at dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in February. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images)

The flap over her conversation with Trump, however, generated a fresh social-media backlash over Akie Abe's involvement in right-wing causes. She and her husband have become figures in a scandal in Japan over an ultra-nationalist kindergarten, with allegations that the two made a secret donation to the school.

Even while seeming to characterize the dinner-table conversation as one from which he sought to remove himself, Trump called the Japanese first lady "a terrific woman" and said "I enjoyed the evening with her."

Speaking of his gravitation toward Putin, Trump also mentioned that his wife, Melania, was seated next to the Russian president, and said in the interview that he simply wanted to check in with her.

"Melania was sitting on the other side of the table, way down on the end, very far away," he said.

Trump said in the interview that he and Putin spoke for about 15 minutes. Other accounts have said the two talked for closer to an hour.

He acknowledged that it was "interesting" that he and Putin spoke about adoption. Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., initially characterized his June 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-connected attorney and several other Russian figures as centering on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.

Putin cut off such adoptions several years ago in retaliation for U.S. sanctions against Russian figures accused of human rights abuses. Because of that, the fate of Russian orphans has become entangled with the larger question of U.S. retaliation for Russian acts, and ongoing discussion about whether sanctions should remain in place.

The younger Trump eventually released an email chain suggesting that the meeting was in fact presented as a Russian overture to provide unfavorable information about Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton.

The G-20 dinner occurred before news of that meeting emerged. Some veteran diplomats and foreign policy experts have expressed alarm over the U.S. and Russian presidents having an extended discussion without any official record or aides present.

Trump's description of his encounter with Akie Abe was not the only difficult-to-prove description of a personal interaction during his recent foreign travels.

In the New York Times interview, he mentioned three times within a span of moments his encounters with French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Paris for Bastille Day, the French national holiday.

"He's a great guy. Smart. Strong. Loves holding my hand," Trump said, according to excerpts published in the Times. Seconds later, he added: "People don't realize he loves holding my hand." And he followed up with this: "I think he is going to be a terrific president of France. But he does love holding my hand."

Video footage of Trump and the first lady preparing to take leave of the Macrons did indeed show an unusually long hand-clasp by the two leaders, with Trump appearing to clutch the French president's hand to his own chest even as Brigitte Macron moved in to say goodbye.

That followed a fraught handshake at the two leaders' meeting two months earlier in Brussels, after which Macron told a French newspaper that the white-knuckle encounter was not "innocent" but meant to show he would not be pushed around.

Advertisement

ALSO

Advertisement
Advertisement