WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump launched his Twitter campaign against China’s seizure of a U.S. Navy research submersible last week to great fanfare ― and, as it turns out, hours after the crisis had already been defused.
It’s unclear whether the president-elect or his aides knew that fact ― it would have been included in the intelligence briefing available to him each morning ― before he sent out his misspelled missive of outrage at 7:30 a.m. Saturday.
“China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters ― rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act,” Trump wrote. He deleted that version and replaced it with “unprecedented” spelled correctly at 8:57 a.m.
But even his first version came four hours after U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus was informed that the Chinese navy had agreed to return the “underwater unmanned vehicle.”
That information would have been known to Trump had he taken the “Presidential Daily Brief” prior to posting his first tweet. Whether he did that Saturday, or whether he or his staff even bothered to check with the State Department or the Pentagon about the status of the matter before weighing in, is unknown. Officials in Trump’s transition office did not respond to queries from The Huffington Post.
Trump has said that he finds the brief repetitive and that he does not need a daily briefing because he is smart. His staff has said Trump is receiving the briefing about three times a week.
In any case, Trump transition team spokesman Jason Miller was quick to take credit for his boss when news broke that China had agreed to return the device. At 11:54 a.m., he tweeted: “@realdonaldtrump gets it done,” and attached a link to an article in The Hill about the resolution of the incident. At 6:52 p.m., Miller tweeted a link to another story in The Hill, this one about his earlier tweet taking credit for Trump’s initial tweet.
And Trump himself capped off the day with a final tweet sent during the short motorcade from Palm Beach International Airport back across the Intracoastal Waterway to his Mar-a-Lago resort following a rally in Alabama: “We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.― let them keep it!”
The encounter’s resolution, though, resulted not from Trump’s 140-character snippets of anger, but days of traditional diplomacy. The Chinese vessel had taken the submersible on Thursday just as the USNS Bowditch was preparing to retrieve it about 60 miles northwest of the Philippines’ Subic Bay in the South China Sea.
Baucus, a former Democratic senator from Montana, lodged his first protest that day, as did U.S. military representatives to their Chinese counterparts. Late Saturday afternoon Beijing time ― pre-dawn 3:30 a.m. in Washington ― Baucus relayed word that China had agreed to return the device, according to the State Department. That handover took place Tuesday, near the same location as the original incident.
The department referred HuffPost to the Trump transition team regarding questions about whether and to what extent the Trump team reached out to diplomats.
The South China Sea has been the source of raised tensions between the United States and China in recent years, with the Chinese building artificial islands on shoals and coral reefs for use as military bases. China has, since the end of World War II, claimed nearly the entire region as its own, while the United States and other nations insist that the area constitutes international water belonging to no country and open to navigation by all.
Trump had already angered China within weeks of his election with a phone conversation with the president of Taiwan. China considers Taiwan a renegade province, which the United States has implicitly accepted for decades under the “One China” policy. But Trump has said he sees no reason to continue that policy and could instead use it as a bargaining chip over negotiations on other issues.