Volodymyr Zelensky’s statements in his now-infamous July call with the White House didn’t get nearly as much attention as Donald Trump’s brazen attempt to induce the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden. Still, they are a revealing record of how leaders worldwide have tailored their diplomacy to speak to Trump’s undisguised idiosyncrasies.
Traditionally, foreign heads of state appeal to the U.S. president by pointing out why their countries deserve American friendship because of shared history, values or strategic interests. But, like Zelensky, officials worldwide have now assessed that the chief concern of the most powerful person in the world is not national interest but ego.
A political novice, Zelensky quickly cottoned to this approach to Trump, which has become a script for leaders around the world. Here’s how it works.
Tell him he’s a political genius.
“We used quite a few of your skills” to succeed in Ukraine’s just-held parliamentary elections, the newly elected Zelensky told Trump right at the top of their call.
As the president’s news conference Wednesday afternoon showed, Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 is still a major preoccupation of his. Complimenting him on this triumph validates a narrative that’s become vital to Trump’s presidency: that he deserves to be in the Oval Office even though he lost the popular vote by a historic margin.
It’s a theme foreign leaders have leaned on since the beginning of Trump’s time in office. Just days after his inauguration, Britain’s then-Prime Minister Theresa May called Trump’s accomplishment “stunning” as she sought to build a bridge to a counterpart who seemed uninterested in America’s commitments to European allies.
Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, has argued Trump’s acumen is so unique it can solve the Israel-Palestine conflict that has led to tens of thousands of deaths, uncounted human rights abuses and decades of tension in the Middle East. Telling Trump that his “courageous stewardship,” “wisdom” and “great negotiating ability” presented new opportunities for peace, Abbas said in May 2017 that, as of Trump’s ascension, “we have hope.”
Ultimately, of course, Trump publicly turned on May and took dramatic new steps to diminish Palestinian influence.
Boost his businesses.
Zelensky also seemed to realize that highlighting his patronage of Trump’s real estate holdings would flatter the president’s image of himself as a businessman par excellence. In the July call, he notably mentioned that he had stayed at Trump Tower during a previous visit to New York.
Other leaders have outdone him in that department. At least 12 foreign governments have made payments to Trump properties ― businesses that still directly lead to income for the president ― during his first two years in office, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) found, for everything from luxurious hotel rooms to booking massive spaces for marquee events.
In a lawsuit first filed in Washington in 2017 and recently revived by a federal appeals court in New York, CREW has argued that the Trump Organization has an unfair advantage over competitors because of its known ties to the president and that Trump’s personal profits are in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, meant to protect federal officials from the influence of wealthy foreigners.
Saudi Arabia, one of the richest governments in the world to lack basic public scrutiny of its spending, is especially fond of this method, dramatically boosting revenue at Trump’s hotels in New York and Washington. The association has clearly stuck in the president’s mind: Speaking recently of an attack on the kingdom that seemingly had nothing to do with his business, Trump noted, “Saudi Arabia pays cash.”
Echo his rhetoric.
Zelensky strategically used his call to push two of Trump’s favored talking points: He bashed European governments for not doing enough to secure the continent (in this context, by supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia-backed militants) and he said he, too, was seeking to “drain the swamp” of corrupt politicians. He even accepted Trump’s conviction that former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter must have done something wrong in Ukraine and that the apparent crack team of Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr could find out exactly what it was.
The tactic of mirroring the confusing object you’re dealing with, so useful for helping babies learn how to deal with the world, has become a valuable one for Trump’s interlocutors. Earlier this year, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš praised the president’s election slogan and said his plan to “make America great again” made perfect sense.
Make him feel as if he’s more important than past presidents.
World leaders also know that, given how much the president operates on the basis of grievance ― against Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton or even members of his own party, like John McCain ― it’s a clever move to make Trump feel oh so special compared with other U.S. leaders.
China gave Trump a “state visit plus” to outshine its treatment of Obama. France gave him a rare front seat to its Bastille Day celebrations. Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan, and Muhammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates both went so far as to snub the Obama White House in its final weeks in office and directly engage with Trump in New York prior to his inauguration. And Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, acknowledging the political value to Trump of appearing close to his country, has repeatedly indicated that he thinks his relationship with the U.S. is far better than it was before 2017.
Straight-up suck up.
The most obvious technique to curry favor with Trump is simple but effective: Just tell him that he is the best, along with everything else in Trump World.
“We can take your plane, which is probably much better than mine,” during a future visit, Zelensky suggested.
The commander in chief has already signaled how much he values this kind of thing to the world by making his allies at home ― his Cabinet, no less ― provide an object lesson.
In this, as with most things Trump, be prepared for things to go a little wonky. Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman offered compliments galore in one call that Trump played on speaker-phone for guests in the Oval Office, including a senator, The Financial Times revealed. In the end, he seemed happy but not especially impressed. But the crown prince is approaching the one-year anniversary of the high-profile murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, in which he’s directly implicated, and continues to enjoy Trump’s tacit protection ― so the chief lesson, perhaps, is try, try again. There’s no shortage of ways to get this president’s attention.