Trump says not to worry about his phone calls. But they’re just the start of how he’s shifting foreign affairs
President Trump tried Thursday to shrug off worries over reports of combative phone calls with stalwart allies, telling Americans, “Don’t worry about it.” But his reassurances only underscored concerns about whether his freewheeling efforts to reorder decades of U.S. foreign policy in two weeks will jolt strategic relationships beyond repair.
Trump’s top advisors have not even all settled into their offices. His secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, showed up for his first day Thursday, imploring skeptical career civil servants to give the new administration a chance. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis set off for his maiden trip abroad, hoping to soothe nerves in South Korea and Japan after months of talk from Trump calling on Pacific allies to take a greater role in their defense.
Yet Trump has rattled friends and partners around the world with increasing frequency — two hemispheres in one day — forcing other U.S. leaders to issue statements, make phone calls, deliver speeches and visit allies in hopes of calming tensions.
“There is a lot of concern that it could lead to an unraveling of some of these relationships,” said Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been focused on understanding Trump’s worldview. “U.S. power is based on ongoing relationships with like-minded allies. He’s not really a relationship guy. He thinks of himself as a deal-maker guy.”
Before the sun was even up on Thursday in Washington, Trump was tweeting about Iran, warning in all-capital letters that he was putting the country “ON NOTICE” for carrying out a medium-range ballistic missile test and attacks by proxy forces on a Saudi frigate.
The administration would not define what it meant by “on notice,” a term used a day earlier by national security advisor Michael Flynn, or explain whether it meant ripping up the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., an agreement Trump has called terrible. When reporters asked the president Thursday whether military action was in play, he answered: “Nothing’s off the table.”
Additionally, the U.S. was likely to impose new sanctions against Iran as soon as Friday, U.S. officials said. They were expected to target Iranian companies, individuals and military units believed to be involved in the ballistic-missile program. Officials at the State and Treasury departments declined to comment.
A separate report in the Washington Post described a testy call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which Trump angrily denounced an agreement for the U.S. to take in refugees who had been detained while trying to reach Australia and ended the scheduled hourlong call less than halfway through.
Trump seemed to acknowledge at least the tone of those calls Thursday during the annual National Prayer Breakfast, saying that blunt talk was part of his strategy for fixing a troubled world.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it,” Trump said. “They’re tough. We have to be tough. It’s time we’re going to be a little tough, folks. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
Trump did not back down from his feud with Australia, either, telling reporters later that he still had a problem with a deal brokered by the Obama administration to accept about 1,250 refugees, whom Trump inaccurately describes as “illegal immigrants.”
“I love Australia as a country,” he said. “But we had a problem.”
Trump did not, however, say that he would violate the terms of the deal. A “previous administration does something, you have to respect that,” he said. “But you can also say, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
As Trump raised tensions, others in Washington sought to provide assurance. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a fellow Republican, called Australia’s ambassador to the U.S., Joe Hockey, “to express my unwavering support for the U.S.-Australia alliance,” he said in a statement that recalled a century of battles that Australians have joined alongside U.S. forces.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) also felt the need to defend an alliance seldom called into question.
“Australia is a important and essential ally,” he told reporters. “It’s going to continue to be.”
Tillerson marked his first day of work by acknowledging turmoil in his department and urging anxious employees “not to let personal convictions overwhelm our work on one team.”
The State Department has been in uproar in recent days. More than 800 diplomats and Foreign Service employees signed a letter of dissent to register their concern after Trump ordered a suspension of most travel and immigration from seven mostly Muslim nations.
Mattis, meanwhile, held his first meeting with a foreign head of government, South Korea’s prime minister and acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, promising to continue a united effort to confront North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions threaten the region.
“We intend to be shoulder-to-shoulder with you as we face this together,” Mattis said.
The situation was far more tense in Iran. Ali Akbar Velayati, senior advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a former foreign minister, was quoted by the Tasnim news agency using his own tough talk. He called Trump a “puppet,” a “novice” and an extremist.
“This is not the first time when an inexperienced man is threatening Iran,” he said. “The new administration of America will realize that threatening Iran will not work, and empty and baseless ranting should be stopped.”
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that Iran has had a “common thread of malign influence” in the world, listing Tehran’s continuing support for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in their fight against rebels, some of which the U.S. supports.
Davis said the Iranian missile that was launched Sunday, which flew southward 650 miles before exploding and failing, violated a United Nations Security Council resolution. Iran disputed that. The U.N. has yet to weigh in.
Davis also said that Iran and its proxies had threatened “freedom of navigation” in the region, including last month when five Iranian vessels repeatedly approached three U.S. ships near the Strait of Hormuz.
The Houthis, a Shiite Muslim group backed by Iranian money and weapons, attacked a Saudi military frigate with three boats packed with explosives on Monday near the Bab al-Mandeb strait. U.S. military commanders are considering whether to send an additional warship to join the two other American military vessels operating near the narrow waterway between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, where millions of barrels of oil pass through daily on ships bound for Europe, Asia and the U.S.
Experts predicted contradictions will abound in Trump’s unorthodox attempts to make foreign policy, including frequent Twitter messages whose meaning can be difficult to discern.
It will be impossible, for example, for the Trump administration to form an alliance with Russia to fight Islamic State and then also pick a fight with Iran, which is a close ally of Moscow, said Doug Fife of the conservative Hudson Institute, a senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration.
“My sense is he has got a number of impulses and they don’t all harmonize,” Fife said.
Current and former government officials said they were still trying to figure out whom Trump will listen to most regularly, but saw the recent spate of ambiguous and belligerent rhetoric as the work of chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. Still, competing centers of power have emerged in the West Wing in the early days of the Trump administration, and some, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, may tug Trump in another direction.
“We’re always one tweet behind what American foreign policy is,” said David Rothkopf, chief executive and editor of the journal Foreign Policy.
Staff writers W. J. Hennigan and Lisa Mascaro in Washington and special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Matt Stiles in Seoul contributed to this report.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics teams from Sacramento to D.C.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.