Donald Trump met with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on Nov. 17, for his first meeting with a foreign head of state as US president-elect. Only a few photos have emerged from their encounter in Trump Tower, but they speak volumes about how Trump is constructing his new presidential image.
Japan got to tell the story
All photos of Trump’s meeting were taken by a Japanese diplomatic staffer, and handed out by Abe’s public relations team. No US journalists were invited, putting American media in the unusual position of portraying their government-to-be through the lens of a foreign government. Similarly, information about the meeting largely came from a press event with Abe after the meeting, with Trump’s team making no official comment.
Despite his readiness to deride US newspapers on Twitter, Trump has been skittish about real-life press contact since his election on Nov. 8, sparking concern about his administration’s commitment to transparency. This secretive meeting with Abe will surely feed those fears.
Conflicts of interest were front and center
Trump also hasn’t done much to reassure the public about potential conflicts of interest: As many pointed out, his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner feature prominently in photos of the diplomatic meeting.
Presidential family members often interact with foreign leaders at state dinners, but Ivanka is more than family—she represents Trump’s private business interests. While part of Trump’s transition team, she is one of three Trump kids slated to run his private business after Jan. 20. Her own business recently was forced to apologize for turning media appearances about her father’s presidency into a sales opportunity.
It’s all about appearances
Perhaps most unsettling, Trump’s team doesn’t seem to care enough about appearances to control the images that surfaced from Japan, or to respond to them. Despite conflict of interest concerns, in these photos, Ivanka and her husband make no effort to avoid the camera, instead posing for “candid” discussion shots.
One source hinted to the New York Times, Trump’s team may not be aware of the ethical pitfalls that he and his family keep charging toward:
“Mr. Trump has always encouraged Ivanka and his children to attend meetings with him,” the person close to the family said. “This meeting in question was very informal. However, they obviously need to adjust to the new realities at hand, which they will.”
But if the Trumps intend to adjust to the norms of public service, they’ll need more than one photographer in the room to hold them to it.