TOKYO — President Trump was reciting the sort of rote praise that leaders of allied nations heap on one another when he suddenly cut himself off during a joint news conference Monday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“The Japanese people are thriving, your cities are vibrant, and you’ve built one of the world’s most powerful economies,” Trump said, before looking up from his prepared remarks. Turning his head to face Abe next to him, Trump ad-libbed: “I don’t know if it’s as good as ours. I think not, okay?” He emphasized the “okay” by drawing it out leadingly as a parent might with a child.
“And we’re going to try to keep it that way,” Trump added, for good measure. “But you’ll be second.”
Abe, listening to an interpreter through an earpiece, smiled and remained silent. But his face betrayed a touch of uncertainty as the U.S. leader returned to his script. After the Japanese government had rolled out the red carpet for Trump and his family for two days, the patron was being patronized. It is becoming a familiar theme for Abe.
Their relationship can seem like an oddball mismatch of global leaders who are thrust together over their shared dislike of the nuclear-armed tyrant next door in North Korea, but who somehow hit it off amid golf course hijinks. Since Trump took office, Abe has been his most consistent suitor, courting him with luxurious gifts (a $3,800 gold-plated driver) and constant attention (numerous phone calls and a personal visit to the White House and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida).
But as Abe has lavished attention on Trump, their relationship has retained a subtext in which the U.S. president insists on asserting his dominance in a passive-aggressive manner. It started with Trump’s emasculating 19-second handshake with Abe in their Oval Office meeting in February, after which Abe appeared to grimace as though his fingers had been crushed.
Trump has let up on the power grip since then but in more subtle ways he has continued to show who is the alpha — a price Abe appears willing to pay in his strategic servitude to keep Trump supporting the post-war security alliance that the president had openly questioned in his election campaign.
As Abe praised their relationship as the best of any two leaders in the history of U.S.-Japan relations — something George W. Bush and Junichiro Koizumi, who visited Graceland together in 2006, might dispute — Trump had obvious difficulty playing along. The two had played nine holes the day before, and Abe jokingly said the match had been “neck-and-neck.”
“What was the reality? I hope Mr. Trump can give his evaluation,” Abe said through an interpreter. Trump just smirked and cast him a skeptical sidelong glance.
Before their round of golf on Sunday, when Trump and Abe signed white hats emblazoned with the slogan, “Donald Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater” in gold lettering, Trump wrote his name in the center of the brim, in large lines, which meant that Abe had to curve his signature off to the side.
The prime minister was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after his election victory, showing up at Trump Tower after calling the president-elect and offering to stop by on his way to a regional economic conference in Peru. At that meeting — attended by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser — Abe presented Trump with the golf club and suggested they play a round together.
He even went out of his way to inform the president-elect about the Japanese singer Pikotaro, whose goofy song “Pineapple Pen” was a global viral hit last year that caught the attention of Ivanka’s daughter, Arabella. Ivanka Trump visited Tokyo last week to speak at a conference on women in the workforce, prompting Abe to tell the president Monday that the Japanese have a “fever” for Ivanka — even though the conference hall was half-empty for her speech.
“Japan consistently supports the position of President Trump when he says that all options are on the table,” Abe said of the U.S. strategy on North Korea. “I once again strongly reaffirmed that Japan and the U.S. are 100 percent together.”
The charm offensive has worked — to a degree. Although he made good on his campaign promise to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that included Japan, Trump has backed off some of his harshest rhetoric on trade, and this week he called Japan a “treasured partner” and a “crucial ally.” Abe was the first foreign leader Trump invited to Mar-a-Lago; the president personally drove him around on a golf cart, weaving around the course to show off the best views.
At the same time, Trump’s embrace has forced Abe into the role of a sidekick. Photos taken by Mar-a-Lago guests of Trump and Abe — in the middle of the restaurant, coordinating their response to a North Korean missile test moments after the news broke — made it seem as though the Japanese prime minister was being dragged into an uncomfortable new reality.
At the news conference Monday, a reporter asked Abe about his message to Trump regarding largely pacifist Japan’s role in its self-defense, amid reports that Trump was disappointed that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces did not shoot down a North Korean test missile. Before Abe could answer, Trump pulled rank and cut in.
“If I could just take a piece of the prime minister’s answer, he will shoot them out of the sky when he completes the purchase of lots of additional military equipment from the United States,” Trump declared.
Abe has found himself in an undeniably better position than South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has not bonded with Trump. There is great unease in Seoul as Trump prepares to arrive there on Tuesday. Yet some Japanese analysts have questioned whether Abe has tied himself too tightly to a mercurial president who tends to cycle through close aides, abruptly banishing those once thought to be in favor.
As one former Asia policy aide in the Obama administration put it last week, Abe could wake up one day and find himself “excommunicated by a tweet.”
On Monday evening, Trump and Abe, along with their wives, entered a gilded ballroom at the Akasaka Palace in the middle of Tokyo for a lavish state dinner. Abe had invited Pikotaro, the “Pineapple Pen” performer. Also in attendance was Japanese golf legend Isao Aoki, 75, whom Trump praised as one of the greatest golfers he has ever watched.
But as he turned his attention to Abe, Trump could not help but turn the toast into a roast.
He regaled the audience of high-level diplomats and senior advisers with a story about how Abe was so desperate to visit him at Trump Tower after the election that the Japanese leader would not take no for an answer — though Trump’s aides worried that such a visit would be “inappropriate,” given that Barack Obama was still president.
Finally, Trump said, he called Abe to tell him no, but the prime minister was already flying to see him.
“I said, ‘You know what? There’s no way he’s going to land and I’m not seeing him,’” Trump said. “So I saw him, and it worked out just fine.”