What we can infer from Trump’s initial actions — and what we can’t

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, for more on the president-elect’s call with the president of Taiwan and the latest from the transition, it’s time for Politics Monday.

Joining us are Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, and Geoff Dyer. He’s diplomatic correspondent for The Financial Times. He has served as the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, and he broke the story of Mr. Trump’s call with the Taiwanese leader.

And we welcome all of you to the program.

So, a little bit of news before we talk about this. We have just seen on the wire services that Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state, in Beijing to meet with the leadership there, is saying that he’s impressed by the — quote — “calm reaction” of the Chinese leaders to the Trump phone call with the president of Taiwan.

But, Amy Walter, why is this causing such a stir at this point?

AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: It’s causing such a stir because, as we seem to say every single Monday, Judy, this is an unconventional president doing unconventional things.

And this is not something that the traditional establishment would see as a good idea to do, especially when there’s not necessarily a policy behind it.

And I think that Tony Blair raised this issue, too. We don’t really know what this actually means. The call in and of itself, as Henry Kissinger said, hasn’t created some tremendous trouble in China. But what we don’t know is whether this is just posturing or whether this is a policy change.

And we have heard from the Trump transition both sides. One side says, no, this is not. The vice president, for example, went on television. Kellyanne Conway, who was his campaign manager, went on television, and they said, this was just a courtesy call. There’s no change in policy.

We’re reading other accounts today that suggest that this is about a change in policy, the president-elect had been very tough on China during the campaign, we’re going to see a more aggressive Trump administration in dealing with China.

But we don’t have an answer for that yet. And that’s why I think there is all the consternation going around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Geoff Dyer, how much of this was planned, and how much of it is just happenstance on the part of Mr. Trump?

GEOFF DYER, The Financial Times: As was just said, it’s very hard to tell, actually.

Mike Pence came out and said this was a courtesy call, which would seem that it was just a small gesture that they’re planning to do. But then Donald Trump a few hours later went on Twitter, as is his wont, and essentially linked the call to Taiwan with a whole series of things he doesn’t like about Chinese economic and foreign policies and implied that the U.S. views of the status of Taiwan are now up for negotiation, that he wants them to be part of a broader negotiation with China about a whole series of economic and foreign policy issues.

So, we just don’t really know what exactly they’re planing to do with this. Was it just about Taiwan? Is it just because they want to push back a bit on Taiwan? Or do we see this as a way of somehow to get leverage for a whole series of other issues on the currency, on tariffs, on the South China Sea? It’s unclear.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me.

Karen Tumulty, read the tea leaves a little bit more. What do you see?

KAREN TUMULTY, The Washington Post: Well, I think that Donald Trump, how many times during the campaign did he tell us that his plan for dealing with foreign policy was to be unpredictable? Well, there we have it.

I think that, increasingly, the evidence does look like this wasn’t just a casual — world leaders don’t just pick up the phone and call each other. It does appear that this was a deliberate move, a deliberately provocative move.

And it seems very much in line with his rhetoric during the campaign that he intended to be tough on China. And don’t forget, we have seen a lot of presidential candidates, memorably, Bill Clinton, who used to criticize George Herbert Walker Bush for coddling dictators and then take the much softer line with China once he’s in office.

I think Donald Trump is signaling that that’s not going to be his way of doing business.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy Walter, it plays into the other phone calls that were reported from overseas, calls, for example, with the prime minister of Pakistan, where he was apparently overly complimentary, in the words of one observer who seemed to know about it, and the broadening search apparently now for secretary of state.

Is this all — how are we to understand what’s happening right now?

AMY WALTER: Well, the other thing that the vice president-elect said over the weekend is, look, you’re going to know about our policy once we are in office, that what’s happening right now in the transition shouldn’t be read too deeply in to. There are a lot of these calls that we’re taking. He’s reaching out to a lot of folks.

Look, if you watch the Trump cam that is positioned in the Trump Tower, watching people go up and down the escalator, you saw one of those in there today was Al Gore. Right?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes. Yes.

AMY WALTER: Lots of people coming in and out, not necessarily indicative of what his policy is going to be.

To have Al Gore one day, and the next day the head of ExxonMobil, what does that — what are you supposed to read into that about his stance on climate change? So, I think, again, it’s going to be that the actions that he takes are significant.

And I know we’re going to get to this in a second. But the people that he’s putting around him on the Cabinet suggest that he’s putting together a very conservative, almost traditionally conservative Republican group around him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Geoff Dyer, before we leave foreign policy, how are the folks in foreign capitals reading all this, when they see with the call with the president of Taiwan, when they read about these other conversations and this ongoing secretary of state search?

GEOFF DYER: Well, we had this whole discussion during the campaign and after the election about whether to take Trump literally or seriously.

Well, in foreign countries, when they see what he’s saying on Twitter since the election and seeing what he’s saying in these calls with foreign leaders, they take everything very seriously and they take everything very literally.

So, foreign governments are going to be poring through all these tweets looking for — to try and discern what it means for foreign policy. So, if he thinks that just by being unpredictable that somehow he can have an impact, but not necessarily commit himself to certain things, that’s not the way it is going to be read in foreign capitals. They are going to take these things very literally and very directly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one of — and Amy just mentioned this, Karen, but a meeting today with Al Gore, of all people, the former vice president, ran for president unsuccessfully. What are — again, what are we to think about all of this?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, other than they may or may not have discussed the relative merits of the Electoral College vs. the popular vote, what I am told by sources close to Gore is that this was at the instigation of Ivanka Trump, that she reached out to the former vice president recently to discuss climate change, and that he was really impressed with the way she was thinking about the issue, framing the issue.

He had to be in New York anyway. And so he went — the original idea was that this meeting was to be between Al Gore and Ivanka Trump. And it turns out it is with the president-elect.

And it was interesting, too, that Al Gore on his way out said, it was a very thoughtful discussion and that it will be continued.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Donald Trump, Amy, is meeting with Democrats, as well as Republicans.

AMY WALTER: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s picked a very clear Republican in Ben Carson to run the Housing Department.

But you alluded to this a moment ago. We are, frankly, kept on guard right now — caught off-guard, I guess you could say, by the variety of people he’s…

AMY WALTER: The variety of people he’s bringing in.

But when you look at the people that he’s actually put around him on his Cabinet, this is a pretty — I would argue a very conservative Cabinet. And whether it’s on issues of immigration, his pick for the attorney general, very conservative on that issue.

On education, this is Betsy DeVos, somebody who has supported school vouchers. And even on Ben Carson, he’s not exactly steeped in housing policy, but his statements on the issue have also been very conservative.

And looking back on something he wrote even in 2015 talking about some programs within HUD, mandated social engineering schemes, very critical of some of the issues that HUD would try to put forward, he’s been critical of other programs, government programs.

And so this is a Cabinet right now, especially when you look at domestic social policy or domestic policy in general, this is a very conservative group of people that he’s put around him, despite the fact that he’s bringing all kinds of people into Trump Tower.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

And just again on the — I posed the question to you a minute ago, Geoff Dyer, about the array of people he’s talking to about secretary of state, from Rudy Giuliani, to today — or, yesterday, we learned about Rex Tillerson, who is the head of a big oil company, ExxonMobil.

Again, if you’re a foreign government, are you seeing this as a typical process for choosing somebody in that position?

GEOFF DYER: It’s not so typical, but it’s been done so publicly, and they have to turn up for these auditions at Trump Tower.

But it’s perfectly respectful thing for him to cast a wide net, to talk to a lot of people. And most of the people he’s thinking about are very serious individuals. They’re perfectly credible candidates.

The thing that strikes me, from looking at the names so far in the Cabinet on the foreign policy side, is the one thing that unites them — and that’s General Mattis at the Pentagon, Mike Pompeo at the CIA, even Mitt Romney to become secretary of state — they’re all very, very hawkish on Iran.

That’s the one thing that you can say about the new Cabinet Donald Trump is putting together. That seems to be one of the coherent themes. They’re very, very skeptical about Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And quick, finally, to Karen. More names coming up for secretary of state, we think?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, we have heard today, what, Jon Huntsman, the former — Barack Obama’s former ambassador to China, a far more moderate figure than — at least politically than we have seen, although, again, very, very much in agreement with a lot of what Donald Trump has to say on China.

The other thing is that Trump doesn’t seem to feel in a great hurry to make this decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No, he doesn’t.

KAREN TUMULTY: He seems to both be enjoying the drama, enjoying the suspense, but also willing to let this kind of play out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen Tumulty, Amy Walter, Geoff Dyer, thank you all.

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