NZ's 'Trump taskforce' shuts down

MFAT's 'Trump taskforce' folded back into the ministry in May, but its reports show the difficulty of keeping tabs on the US President. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

The Government’s “Trump taskforce” has quietly folded after keeping tabs on the early days of the new US President’s administration. The reports it produced provide some insight into the difficulties of dealing with an unconventional leader, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Donald Trump’s fondness for Twitter is well known - one former CIA analyst described his tweets as “a gold mine” for foreign intelligence agencies.

It’s hard to imagine what spooks would have made of the US President’s latest effort: a 30-second clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling programme, delivering a clothesline to someone with the CNN logo superimposed over their head (and the hashtags #FraudNewsCNN and #FNN for good measure).

At one point, the task of deciphering the tweet would have fallen to a member of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s “Trump taskforce”, set up to keep the Government apprised of the moves of the Trump administration.

However, documents obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act show the taskforce quietly closed shop in early May, just three months after it was established.

It was set up after the Government was blindsided by Trump’s Muslim ban in February and its impact on Kiwis who held dual citizenship with any of the seven countries subject to travel restrictions.

Although New Zealand eventually secured an exemption, Murray McCully, the foreign minister at the time, told Fairfax he had had “a very frank discussion” with MFAT chief executive Brook Barrington about the ministry’s failure to brief ministers.

While the scale of the transition was complex, McCully said the ministry had to “get out of bed a bit earlier in the morning, and work a bit harder during the day” to stay on top of the issues.

A little more than a week later, Barrington told media the ministry was setting up a taskforce with “24/7 real-time advice” so the Government would not be caught unawares again.

In its OIA response, MFAT said the taskforce cost just over $46,000 while it was running, with a total of 18 employees put to work on the reports - including a number of staffers with “relevant expertise” based at overseas posts.

The taskforce provided situation reports, or “sit reps”, twice a day, with the US Embassy outlining the key issues in Washington.

In addition to monitoring, the terms of reference for the taskforce said it would also “guide New Zealand’s early engagements with the new administration”, providing advice to the Foreign Affairs Minister and government agencies on priorities.

“In that regard, the taskforce will need to work with divisions and agencies to ensure consistent messaging for the prime minister, ministers and senior officials who are meeting with US counterparts.”

Quite what those messages are is unclear: all media talking points were redacted, along with sections outlining the possible implication for New Zealand’s interests and policy, with Mfat saying their release would “impact negatively on New Zealand’s relationship with the US and the New Zealand Government’s ability to conduct its relations with the new US Government”.

Keeping tabs on tweets

However, what remains provides a hint of the unusual task facing diplomats unaccustomed to heads of state making policy announcements 140 characters at a time.

Trump's tweets are cited no less than 33 times over the three months of briefings, covering his responses to issues as diverse as his “Muslim ban”, department store chain Nordstrom dropping his daughter Ivanka’s apparel line, and allegations about his ties with Russia.

A briefing from February 27, mentioning Trump’s tweets about the Democrats, gives an idea of what it is like monitoring the new US President.

“After a brief hiatus from Twitter at the end of the week, [redacted] with a number of tweets including allegations that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair elections (which took place in Atlanta yesterday) were ‘rigged’.

“Trump tweeted Sunday morning: ‘The race for DNC Chairman was, of course, totally ‘rigged’. Bernie’s guy, like Bernie himself, never had a chance. Clinton demanded Perez!”

Another report, covering Trump’s allegations that he had been wiretapped by former president Barack Obama, provided a full list for officials and ministers to read.

“A transcript of President Trump’s tweets on the alleged wiretap are appended at the conclusion of this sit rep.”

More conventionally, the reports also covered the Trump administration’s discussions and battles with Congress and foreign leaders, as well as efforts to fill vacant roles.

In a written statement, an MFAT spokeswoman said the Trump taskforce “was always intended as a temporary arrangement to coordinate management of New Zealand’s interests in the early days of the new US Administration”.

“By early May, it had reached a stage where the taskforce’s day-to-day work was able to be managed as a business-as-usual activity for the ministry’s Americas division and other relevant divisions.”

The spokeswoman said the taskforce had ensured the Government was up to speed with “significant breaking developments affecting New Zealanders and New Zealand’s trade and security interests”, providing regular forecasts of likely developments.

“Setting up taskforces is not an unusual practice for the ministry, and it was made clear at the time by MFAT chief executive Brook Barrington that a modern foreign ministry needs to respond quickly and effectively to new developments.”