By Zeke Miller and Jill Colvin
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe courted the new American president with a golden driver not long after Donald Trump won the White House. He’s met with the billionaire businessman more than any other world leader, and he is Trump’s second-most frequent caller.
Yet the “bromance” between Trump and Abe has its limits.
Trump appeared to be successful Tuesday in reassuring Abe that he would take Japan’s concerns to heart during his upcoming meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But Wednesday brought public disagreements, as Trump spurned his guest’s top economic and trade priorities. Principal among them: allowing Japan an exemption from new U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs and persuading Trump to re-join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
During a roughly 40-minute joint news conference Wednesday evening, Abe tried to put on a good face, emphasizing their close relationship and their areas of accord on North Korea policy. He effusively thanked Trump for pledging to raise the issue of Japanese abductees held by North Korea in his meeting with Kim.
But when pressed on the economic disagreements, Abe repeatedly consulted notes as he tried to sidestep questions on the contentious issues, instead returning to Trump’s favored call for developing a “reciprocal” trade relationship with the U.S. It marked a stark departure from Abe’s pre-summit hopes of coaxing the U.S. back into the TPP. And Japan remains the only major U.S. ally not to be exempted from the tariffs announced last month.
World leaders have quickly learned that flattery is an easy way into Trump’s graces, and throughout the two-day summit, Abe appeared keen to praise the president at every opportunity. He applauded Trump’s courage for agreeing to meet with Kim and marveled at Mar-a-Lago, calling Trump’s estate “a gorgeous place.”
Abe drew laughs before a dinner with the joint delegations in a baroque dining room when he recounted the strength of their relationship over food, which included a cheeseburger on the golf course and a working luncheon Wednesday. “We already had two lunches in the same day,” he said. “And now we are going to have our dinner.”
“Prime Minister Abe and I have spent a lot of time today, and we really spent a lot of time since I got elected. And right from the beginning we hit it off. The relationship is a very good one,” Trump said as the pair sat down for the working lunch on economic issues.
That was the session Trump suggested he was most looking forward to. “I love the world of finance and the world of economics, and probably, it’s where I do the best. But we will be able to work things out,” he said.
Except it didn’t turn out that way. The session on trade and economic issues quickly turned tense and tough, according to two U.S. officials, as the leaders found themselves at an impasse on the tariffs. And Trump refused to budge on his opposition to the TPP, from which he withdrew the U.S. last year. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
Still, several officials said publicly the personal connection between the leaders is robust enough to withstand the tensions.
The summit was hastily put together after Trump accepted Kim’s invitation for a meeting in the next two months, and as the president prepared to implement the metals tariffs.
Trump said the invitation to his private club was a sign of how much he liked Abe.
“Many of the world’s great leaders request to come to Mar-a-Lago and Palm Beach. They like it; I like it. We’re comfortable. We have great relationships,'” the president said, boosting the private club, which collects dues that enrich Trump.
Trump’s most frequent caller is the president of France, Emmanuel Macron.