The president of the United States is unable to grasp the concept of time zones, and that’s just the beginning:
Several times in the first year of his administration, President Donald Trump wanted to call Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the middle of the afternoon. But there was a problem. Midafternoon in Washington is the middle of the night in Tokyo — when Abe would be fast asleep.
Trump’s aides had to explain the issue, which one diplomatic source said came up on “a constant basis,” but it wasn’t easy.
“He wasn’t great with recognizing that the leader of a country might be 80 or 85 years old and isn’t going to be awake or in the right place at 10:30 or 11 p.m. their time,” said a former Trump NSC official. “When he wants to call someone, he wants to call someone. He’s more impulsive that way. He doesn’t think about what time it is or who it is,” added a person close to Trump.
In the case of Abe and others, Trump’s NSC staffers would advise him, for instance, that “the time is messed up, it’s 1 o’clock in the morning” and promise to put the call on his calendar for a more diplomatically appropriate time. Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster would assure him: “We can try to set it up.”
Trump’s desire to call world leaders at awkward hours is just one of many previously unreported diplomatic faux pas Trump has made since assuming the presidency, which go beyond telephone etiquette to include misconceptions, mispronunciations and awkward meetings. Sometimes the foibles have been contained within the White House. In one case, Trump, while studying a briefer’s map of South Asia ahead of a 2017 meeting with India’s prime minister, mispronounced Nepal as “nipple” and laughingly referred to Bhutan as “button,” according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) August 13, 2018
Trump’s apparent ignorance about world affairs, geography and leaders has also repeatedly emerged in internal staff meetings. Ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2017 White House visit, Trump asked his national security aides whether Modi would be bringing along his wife. Staffers explained that Modi has long been estranged from his wife. “Ah, I think I can set him up with somebody,” Trump joked, according to two people briefed on the meeting. It was in that same meeting that Trump appeared confused by Nepal and Bhutan, which lie sandwiched between India and China.
“He didn’t know what those were. He thought it was all part of India,” said one person familiar with the meeting. “He was like, ‘What is this stuff in between and these other countries?’”
Another former Trump NSC official said Trump sometimes avoids saying certain words or names when talking to a foreign leader because he’s unsure whether he can pronounce them properly. The White House official said Trump always wants to be respectful and make sure he gets pronunciations right.
At times, he wings it with unfortunate results. Meeting with a group of African countries at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump, in public remarks, referred to the country of Namibia as “Nambia.” (Trump did impress some of his own aides in the meeting, however. “He did a very good job of saying Côte d’Ivoire,” said one.)
When Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited the White House last month, Trump congratulated him on his “tremendous victory,” even though the Italian had never campaigned for office or run in Italy’s election. (Conte was a compromise candidate by two parties who came out on top in the election.)
Trump at times also betrays an ignorance of regional history and rivalries. During a meeting with Abe at Mar-a-Lago in April, Trump repeatedly praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to a former NSC official from a prior administration.
“Everyone was cringing because Japan and China are rivals, and the Japanese and the Chinese are nervous about the president tilting too far towards the other side,” that person said. A White House official said Trump explained to Abe that his relationship with Xi would be useful in dealing with North Korea and insisted it “wasn’t considered a negative” by the Japanese side.
And, in fairness, his administration is also very bad at complying with information security best practices. Still, let’s hear from both sides!
“If people are looking for more polish and more kind of conventional statecraft and that’s their metric for Trump learning, I think they’re going to be disappointed,” said Carafano, vice president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. “I don’t think he sees those as faux pas; I think he sees them as, ‘Look, I do things differently.’ If you say, ‘That’s not how things are done,’ he says, ‘Who says? Where is it written down that I can’t do that?’”
Pronouncing “Nepal” as “nipple” is not, in fact, forbidden by federal statute. CHECKMATE LIBS!