Behind the scenes of Trump's very strange White House meeting with Vietnam's prime minister

Read the full excerpt on Salon.


The Oval Office looked the same. The wall-to-ceiling windows continued to overlook the South Lawn. The famous "Resolute" desk dominated the room. But it didn't feel like the Oval Office I remembered. In President Obama's time, rooms outside the Oval Office buzzed with activity, while the office itself was serene. Now the situation was reversed. The West Wing seemed eerily quiet. Inside the Oval Office, people scurried in and out. Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell and a cluster of other advisors huddled around the "Resolute" desk, where Presidents Rutherford Hayes, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy had governed. No one left to make room for the new arrivals, and the office seemed to get more crowded with each passing moment.
Standing behind a cluster of aides and attempting to get the president's attention, National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster tried to introduce me to President Trump: "Mr. President, this is our ambassador to Vietnam."
I stared at a stiff helmet of orange hair as the president looked up and said, "You're lucky. That's a good job."
"Yes, sir, I'm very lucky," I said. "I love my job and feel privileged to do it."
"So, who are we meeting?" the president asked.
"The prime minister of Vietnam," McMaster replied.
"What's his name?"
"Nguyen Xuân Phúc," a senior National Security Council official said. "Rhymes with 'book.'"
"You mean like Fook You?" President Trump asked. "I knew a guy named Fook You. Really. I rented him a restaurant. When he picked up the phone, he answered 'Fook You.' His business went badly. People didn't like that. He lost the restaurant."
All those present laughed dutifully.
US President Donald Trump (R) meets with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington, DC, May 31, 2017.
(JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
"Mr.President," McMaster interrupted, "we only have five minutes for this briefing."
More people slipped in and out. I wondered how anyone could concentrate in all the chaos. After hearing that Vietnam had a trade surplus with the United States and a trade deficit with China, the president interjected: "The Chinese always get great deals. Except with me. I did a great deal in China."
President Trump then instructed Lighthizer to "bring the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam to zero in four years."
Lighthizer nodded, perhaps not knowing how to reply. It was an impossible task. He then tried to shift the president's focus. "The ambassador [to Vietnam] is trying to finish a deal to build a new embassy," he said. "We can have a groundbreaking ceremony when you visit."
A member of Lighthizer's staff had told me, earnestly, that President Trump liked groundbreaking ceremonies. He enjoyed holding a gold- plated shovel for the photographers.
"I'm visiting?" the president asked, apparently unaware that he had agreed to join an autumn summit of APEC in Vietnam. He then disappeared into another room.