Three theories about Trump’s controversial call with Taiwan

Image: AP Photo/John Minchillo
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Donald Trump had people believe that the protocol-breaching phone call between him and Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen over the weekend was orchestrated by the Taiwanese side, one of many congratulatory messages from abroad.

Now, the picture is looking considerably more complicated, as details emerge about potentially deep and lengthy planning behind the scenes to make the call happen by people sympathetic to Taiwan in Washington, DC.

These are some of the theories about what’s really going on with The Call.

1. It was a routine courtesy call from one leader to another

Nope. Tsai’s administration said the call was arranged by both sides.

2. It was a mistake

The idea of Trump bumbling into one of 2016’s greatest diplomatic faux pas may provide momentary comic relief, but the president-elect is by no means a novice when it comes to the fraught relationship between the US, China, and Taiwan. Trump may not appear to have the strongest grip on global affairs—let alone the nuances of one of the most complex diplomatic knots in the world—but in 2011, he appeared to have an opinion on US arms sales to China. Trump suggested then that by withholding the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, the US was not being tough enough on China:

So it’s possible that Trump has a plan to use Taiwan as leverage in a bigger fight against China—shortly after the call with Tsai took place, Trump went back to antagonizing Beijing on Twitter about its supposed manipulation of the yuan (an accusation as wrong today as it was when he made it repeatedly during the campaign). This suggests that Trump’s call with Tsai was not only premeditated, but part of a broader plan…

3. Trump wants to pick a fight with China and people in Washington will help make it happen 

Based on the information that has emerged in the past few days, this is the most likely explanation. The cast of characters around Trump who are sympathetic to Taiwan, or hawkish on China, is growing larger by the day. The Washington Post first reported that the call was weeks in the making, and had the fingerprints of:

  • Edward Feulner, former president of conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation, who met with Tsai in October and was named by the Taiwan press as a key player in setting up the call (link in Chinese)
  • Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, who is friendly with Taiwan and whose appointment in November was welcomed by Taiwan’s government
  • Peter Navarro, a Trump policy adviser, who has expressed support for Taiwan in the past
  • Steven Yates, a former adviser to Dick Cheney, who visited Taiwan yesterday

More recently, former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole has emerged as an unexpected behind-the-scenes fixer. Reports suggest that Alston & Bird, a law firm that employs Dole as a lobbyist, was paid $140,000 earlier this year to arrange meetings between Trump’s team and Taiwanese officials. Also mentioned in the reports is Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney-general, who met with Taiwan’s de facto ambassador to the US, Stanley Kao, earlier this year.