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The President's Wingman


World leaders gathered in New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly, where President Trump participated in what's been described as diplomatic speed dating from hell. Sure, there's formal speeches and meetings. But just as important, there's the small talk that greases the diplomatic wheels. Luckily, every president has a wingman who gives him all the information he needs. And we've got a former wingman with us now. Spencer Geissinger led the advance team for President George W. Bush, and he joins us from Phoenix. Thanks for being with us.

SPENCER GEISSINGER: Thank you, Lulu. Great to be with you this morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How would you prepare the president to meet all these world leaders at the U.N.?

GEISSINGER: Well, a lot of work goes into it, as you can imagine. Even if it's just going to be a short meeting, a lot of research goes into it - advanced meetings with the visiting dignitaries, his or her own advance team, how the seats will be arranged, who sits where.

And then, the actual subject matter of the meeting is usually dealt with by the National Security Council staff and the State Department staff. So yes, a lot goes into it, even if it's just a five-minute meeting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do you get your information? You say that there's a lot of background information that you get. How do you get that information?

GEISSINGER: Well, obviously, the State Department, you know, will assist in writing the briefing paper. The National Security Council staff works on that - and as well as the CIA. So there's a - like, sort of a...



GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even the CIA's, like, getting this information. I imagine it's like the details that are the stuff that really make it pop, right? So can you give us an example of some of the details that you get about the personal life and interests of the dignitaries he may meet?

GEISSINGER: Sure. So as you can imagine, politics is about relationships and personalities. And so every leader has their own lifestyle, their own favorite things to do, their own personal interests. And so we endeavor to find out what those are. So for example, I'll take a meeting that happened between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan. Koizumi was a huge Elvis fan.


GEISSINGER: And we learned that, and we knew that. And so the president decided, let's take Prime Minister Koizumi to Graceland. So they flew to Memphis...


GEISSINGER: ...And had a private tour at Graceland. And they sang, and they bought the typical Elvis sunglasses. And so those sorts of things really help - believe it or not, they help with diplomacy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This brings us to this administration. I'd like to get your view because President Trump is famously off the cuff. Things that might not have been scheduled, all of a sudden, happen. What do you think it might be like to be on his advance team?

GEISSINGER: I think it would be tough. I have friends that work on his advance team, folks that had worked for me that now transitioned and work for him. And it's tough. I mean, you know, but he's always been that way. So it's not a surprise. And so their staff is adapt to that. And I'm sure they have policies and procedures in place that, when he says something or does something that sort of was unscripted, they have a way to deal with it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I'm curious what other countries might be looking at when they look at President Trump, and, they are sort of thinking about, what is the way to best engage with him? We've seen leaders on the world stage like President Macron of France, which might've been a testy relationship but actually went very well.

GEISSINGER: That just goes to show you the personal side of it - the personal relationship side of it. He - I've noticed with President Trump, with him prior to meeting a foreign leader, he may have a certain idea of what they're about and he may have an opinion of them prior to meeting with him. And it - oftentimes, it changes after he spent some time with them. And so I think the more he can interact and meet with foreign leaders on a personal level, I think it's better for the country. And it will go a long way for diplomacy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Spencer Geissinger. He led the advance team for President George W. Bush. Thank you so very much.

GEISSINGER: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.