Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 04, 2017
From the American side, who briefed President Trump before he met Modi?
How a brainstrust and POTUS aligned over messages to Modi

"No attribution please, just say Senior White House official," was the brusque instruction to the crush of reporters in the James Brady Press briefing room after an exceptionally well cooked background briefing on the Friday before the Modi Trump summit meeting.

The "Senior White House" official who spoke for 40 minutes had prepared, written answers to questions from BBC, Washington Post and Indian news media. There wasn't a single question to which there wasn't a pre-written jotting. How odd, and how hyper-prepared too.

From the Friday of the background briefing till the Monday of the meeting, several measurable metrics exist to assess the influence of the Asia hands in Trump's A team.

The background briefing, Trump's Rose Garden statement and the Indo-US joint statement are not three disparate metrics.

They're all coming from the same brainstrust — "Senior White House official". Those who did not turn up at the briefing and instead listened to it later were struck by the clarity and nuancing, but since they could not see the person's face, it was even more intriguing.

"If this person is important enough within the system and Trump sticks to this script, it's going to be a big win for India. If he goes off on a tangent, there's no saying what can happen," was the chatter as the weekend loomed ahead of the Monday meeting.

Now the summit is behind us, it turns out Trump did stick to the script, almost word for word which speaks both for the India's influence inside the White House and the heft of the South Asia intellectuals among Trump's A listers.

A view that is gaining currency on the Washington DC policy circuit is that if the last person to brief Trump is merely clever or preferably wise, it makes all the difference to the outcome of Trump's meetings. In the specific case of the Modi-Trump meetings, the Trump we heard at the Rose Garden was a boutique version of his usual self. He didn't take a major swipe in public except saying that he’s bargaining for a higher price on LNG exports to India, he didn't fire a temperamental tweet before Modi landed or after he left, his language was measured, his Rose Garden speech was warm and effusive, the fairly prolonged evening engagement went better than many on the Indian side expected.

This collation of excerpts shows how the background briefing on 23 June and the Modi-Trump summit day quotes from the White House overlap almost word to word.

Background briefing on 23 June

Although India is not a formal ally of the US, Washington treats India "on par with our allies" in defence cooperation. Last year's designation of India as a major defence partner was extremely important and we'll see a concrete expression of this important designation during this visit.

Joint statement on 26 June

President Trump and Prime Minister Modi pledged to deepen defense and security cooperation, building on the United States' recognition of India as a Major Defence Partner. The United States and India look forward to working together on advanced defense equipment and technology at a level commensurate with that of the closest allies and partners of the United States.

Background briefing, 23 June

Energy partnership will be highlighted during this visit. Indian energy companies signed over $32 billion in long term contracts for the export of US produced liquified natural gas from Louisiana and Maryland.

White House statement 26 June

Liquefied Natural Gas Exports and Investment. Indian energy companies have signed more than $30 billion in long-term contracts for US-produced liquefied natural gas (LNG), including from Louisiana and Maryland. Industry estimates that Indian companies have invested more than $10 billion in the United States LNG and shale sectors.

Background briefing, 23 June

These two leaders have a lot in common, they are the most followed leaders on social media. I think president Trump is slightly ahead of Modi (smiles), but this shows the kind of leaders they are — they are innovators, businessman (Trump), they are committed to bringing prosperity to their people and finding innovative ways to do that.

Trump's Rose Garden statement, 26 June

I'm proud to announce to the media, to the American people, and to the Indian people, that Prime Minister Modi and I are world leaders in social media — (laughter) — we're believers — giving the citizens of our countries the opportunity to hear directly from their elected officials, and for us to hear directly from them.  I guess it's worked very well in both cases.

Background briefing, 23 June

Right now, two-way trade in goods and services totals over $114 billion. Both sides are looking to increase their market access. The US is looking to focus much more on intellectual property protection, reduction of tariffs. There are challenges in the trading sphere. The US is looking much more at reduction of tariffs.

Trump's Rose Garden statement

I look forward to working with you, Mr. Prime Minister, to create jobs in our countries, to grow our economies, and to create a trading relationship that is fair and reciprocal.

It is important that barriers be removed to the export of US goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country.

And many more paragraphs that are almost a copy paste version with some minor tweaks from the background briefing.

"How are you guys preparing him for the visit by Prime Minister Modi.. and is he getting familiar with the social norms of that country?" WaPo's David Nakamura asked the official.

"He's getting briefings. We ourselves are generating preparatory material. It's an all hands on effort. He's going to really expand his knowledge base about India. During the campaign itself, he has said that in him, India would have a true friend in the White House," the official said.

Even "true friend" found mention in Trump's speech — a one-two maneover that's rarely gone this smoothly in the Trump White House.

Someone asked why Trump didn't come to meet Modi earlier.

The official answer is about dates on a calendar and Uttar Pradesh elections.

But consider this: The "senior White House official" who turned out to be the linchpin for the Modi Trump gig is a Spring 2017 entry into the White House, a lot of the "all hands on" effort to prep Trump would have been led by someone else (who may not have been as thorough) if the trip had happened any earlier than April. To the credit of South Block strategists, they moved in swiftly and aligned in sync.

"We've taken about two months to plan this visit. A lot has gone into it."

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan is Senior Programme Manager for Media and Digital Content with ORF America. Her work focuses on the future of jobs current research in ...

Read More +


Pradyot Ranjan Jena

Pradyot Ranjan Jena

Pradyot Ranjan Jena Associate Professor National Institute of Technology Karnataka

Read More +