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Trump In Contact With Foreign Leaders, But State Department Phones Quiet

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Tokyo Thursday for New York, for talks with Donald Trump. He is the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect, whose campaign pledges have prompted concerns over U.S. foreign policy.
Kazuhiro Nogi
AFP/Getty Images
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Tokyo Thursday for New York, for talks with Donald Trump. He is the first foreign leader to meet with the president-elect, whose campaign pledges have prompted concerns over U.S. foreign policy.

Updated at 7:33 p.m. ET

Since this story was written, the State Department said it was contacted by the president-elect's transition representatives. The phone call was apparently limited to a discussion about logistics.

The State Department's transition office has been quiet, as Trump and his top advisers remain in New York. State Department spokesman John Kirby says officials stand ready and willing to offer any briefing materials to the Trump team, but so far, there just haven't been any calls.

"It's not our place to inject ourselves into those decisions about who the president-elect is going to speak to and what they're going to discuss," Kirby told reporters Wednesday. "I mean, those are his staff's decisions to make. We, of course, stand ready to assist the president-elect's team in any way that they deem fit. But as I said, there's been no outreach to date."

And there were no contacts with either the Trump transition team or Japanese officials before a meeting planned for Thursday in New York between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump's first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since the election. The schedule was only made clear Thursday morning — and that may have unsettled officials in Japan, a key U.S. ally.

A quick call by Trump's staff to the State Department could have avoided any ruffled feathers, says Ronald Neumann, a longtime U.S diplomat.

"It might have been useful if they had the kind of knowledge that State could give them about Japanese sensitivities and protocol," he says. "But it wouldn't necessarily be normal at this early stage."

Neumann runs the American Academy of Diplomacy, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. His father, Robert Neumann, was a career diplomat, too, and oversaw the transition at the State Department when Ronald Reagan became president 35 years ago.

Neumann has seen a lot of change over the years, but he says one thing is always certain — the State Department prepares "scads" of briefing papers for incoming administrations.

"Those are papers that the State Department desperately hopes somebody in the administration will read before they start making policy decisions," he says. "Whether they will read them is, uh, questionable."

Neumann is not surprised that Trump's advisers have been fielding calls from around the world without any input from the State Department.

"I would expect most of these calls will be sort of 'nice to know you, congratulations,' sort of getting-to-know-you calls, but without much substance," he says. "So there wouldn't be much need for a paper."

Thursday, Trump spoke with the president of Azerbaijan, the prime minister of the Netherlands and the president of Poland. He has already spoken with Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping. Trump's transition officials say there were "appropriate security measures" for those calls, and Trump spokesman Sean Spicer says the president-elect does have his own team to get him ready to talk to world leaders.

"We are not going to discuss those individuals," Spicer says, "but there is a team that is discussing both policy and protocol to make sure he is properly prepared."

As for the empty State Department transition office, Trump will be sending over a so-called landing team soon. There is a lot of work ahead to fill the hundreds of political jobs in the State Department. And even the transition team could change once a new secretary of state is named, according to Neumann. He is making a pitch now for Trump's State Department to strike a better balance between political appointees and career diplomats who have more experience.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.