By Steve Holland and Kiyoshi Takenaka
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Donald Trump on Thursday seeking clarity on campaign statements by the president-elect that rattled the Tokyo government, later telling reporters he was confident Trump was a “trustworthy leader.”
After the hastily arranged 90-minute meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Abe told reporters: “The talks made me feel sure that we can build a relationship of trust.” But he would not disclose specifics of the conversation because the talks were unofficial.
The conversation came as Japan’s leadership was nervous about the future strength of an alliance that is core to Tokyo’s diplomacy and security.
Abe and other Asian leaders were alarmed at Trump’s pledge during his campaign to make allies pay more for help from U.S. forces, his suggestion that Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons and his staunch opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
The Republican president-elect will succeed Democratic President Barack Obama on Jan. 20.
Describing his conversation as “candid” and held in a “warm atmosphere,” Abe said: “Alliances cannot function without trust. I am now confident that President-elect Trump is a trustworthy leader.”
He said he had agreed to meet again with Trump “at a convenient time to cover a wider area in greater depth.” It was not clear if such a meeting would occur before Trump’s inauguration.
Trump official Kellyanne Conway said earlier on Thursday in an interview with CBS that “any deeper conversations about policy and the relationship between Japan and the United States will have to wait until after the inauguration.”
Trump officials did not immediately comment following the meeting with Abe.
Abe is a veteran lawmaker who worked closely with Obama on the 12-nation TPP trade pact, which was part of Obama’s push to counter the rising strength of China and was a pillar of Abe’s economic reforms.
Abe and Trump gave each other golfing gear as gifts during their meeting, according to a Japanese government statement.
Photographs taken inside the ornate meeting room at Trump Tower showed Abe and an interpreter along with Trump, his daughter Ivanka, her husband and Trump adviser Jared Kushner, and Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn.
FILLING ADMINISTRATION POSTS
A senior Trump official said on Thursday that Trump had offered Flynn the national security adviser position.
While it was not clear whether Flynn had accepted the job, a person familiar with the offer told Reuters: “When the president-(elect) of the United States asks you to serve, there is only one answer.”
As the incoming Trump administration prepares to take office on Jan. 20, a Pentagon spokesman said he expected the Defense Department would conduct its first military briefing for Trump transition officials on Friday.
Other Obama administration agencies, including the Justice Department, were taking similar steps.
A brash outsider who has never held public office, Trump has been consumed since winning last week’s election with working out who will occupy senior positions in his administration.
Democrats in Congress kept up their criticism of Trump’s controversial selection of right-wing firebrand Stephen Bannon as senior counselor.
A spokesman for House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that during a meeting with Vice President-elect Mike Pence, she urged that the appointment be reconsidered.
Trump has been holed up in Trump Tower meeting with people who could fill senior roles on his governing team.
On Saturday, he plans to meet with Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee in the 2012 presidential election, and may discuss bringing him on as secretary of state, a source familiar with the meeting said. The source had earlier said the meeting would take place on Sunday.
It would be an extraordinary turn of events, given that Romney called Trump a “fraud” and urged Republicans to vote for anyone but the real estate magnate while the party was picking its presidential nominee.
Trump mocked Romney on the campaign trail, saying he “choked like a dog” during his unsuccessful 2012 run against President Barack Obama.
TRUMP’S 1980s VIEW OF JAPAN?
Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters on Friday in Tokyo that it was beneficial for Abe to meet Trump before he becomes president, given the importance of Japan-U.S. relations.
Abe adviser Katsuyuki Kawai told Reuters he had spoken to several Trump advisers and lawmakers since arriving in Washington on Monday and had been told: “We don’t have to take each word that Mr. Trump said publicly literally.”
Abe has boosted Japan’s overall defense spending since taking office in 2012, while stretching the limits of its pacifist postwar constitution to allow the military to take a bigger global role. Defense spending still stands at just over 1 percent of GDP compared with more than 3 percent in the United States.
The United States is projected to spend $5.745 billion for U.S. forces in Japan in the current 2017 fiscal year. According to Japan’s Defense Ministry, Tokyo’s expenses related to U.S. troops stationed in Japan totalled about 720 billion yen ($6.6 billion) in the year that ended in March.
Some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested an image of Japan forged in the 1980s, when Tokyo was seen by many in the United States as a threat to jobs and a free-rider on defense.
The Trump adviser who spoke earlier in the week stressed a more positive view.
“Frankly, the prime minister has been more assertive and forthright in trying to make those changes to Japan’s global posture,” he said.
Abe was expected to see Obama at a summit in Peru on the weekend. Hours before Abe and Trump met, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met in Lima to discuss the Paris climate accord – a deal Trump has pledged to exit.
Some diplomats say that until Trump makes key appointments, it will be hard to assess his policies on security issues ranging from overseas deployments of U.S. troops, China’s maritime assertiveness and the North Korean nuclear threat.