When I met with President Phúc on September 23, he surprised me with congratulations on the publication of Nothing Is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam. Ambassador to the U.S. Ha Kim Ngoc’s smiling eyes over his mask told me that he had briefed the President.
I told President Phúc that Nothing Is Impossible is written by someone who truly loves Vietnam.
During our meeting, President Phúc and I discussed business, and as I advocated for U.S. companies, he did what I have seen him done many times before: he charged officials on the spot with taking appropriate action.
Then the president returned to the topic of my book. He said that someone who loves Vietnam as much as I do and who seeks to understand it can best facilitate U.S. private sector trade and investment in Vietnam. In my new role as President and CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council, I certainly intend to do so.
When he was prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phúc always showed me the greatest warmth and hospitality. In May 2017, Prime Minister Phúc invited me to join him on his flight from New York to Washington. From the first row, he ambled back to my seat on the plane to ask how he could best engage with President Trump. “Be yourself,” I urged him. I believed – correctly, it turned out – that Phuc could charm anyone, even Donald Trump. “Use visual aids, but don’t rely too heavily on notes.” Maps would be good, too, I suggested.
When he met with President Trump in the Oval Office “one-on-one,” the prime minister showed the president a map of the South China Sea as a reminder that China’s behavior concerned Vietnam most of all.
In the Cabinet Room, with a larger group present, Trump urged Prime Minister Phúc to reduce Vietnam’s trade deficit with the United States from $32 billion to zero in four years. He also encouraged Vietnam to ratchet up its pressure on North Korea, and he asked that Vietnam accelerate its acceptance of Vietnamese refugees subject to deportation orders.
I knew the source of the third request: I had seen Senior Advisor to the President Steven Miller slip in and whisper into the president’s ear just as he was heading to the Cabinet Room. Miller was the architect of a racist policy of deport Vietnamese immigrants who had arrived in the United States before 1995. I feared not only that these returning refugees would become human rights cases, but also that this change in policy would upset our economic agenda and harm the ongoing process of reconciliation. I thought the policy was racist and un-American.
It was left to the prime minister of Communist Vietnam to extol the virtues of free and fair trade. He said that trade “leads to growth and jobs. Our two economies are more complementary than competitive.”
President Trump spoke again about trade deficits and said, “we must make more progress before the APEC summit [of November 2017].” The president told the prime minister that Saudi Arabia had placed orders worth $450 billion during the president’s recent visit there. “Jared [Kushner] and Rex [Tillerson] worked really hard,” he said. The message was clear: in the Trump Administration, presidential visits came with a price tag.
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