Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with US President-elect Donald Trump at her office in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Reuters/Taiwan Presidential Office handout
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen speaks on the phone with a newly elected Donald Trump in December 2016. Photo: Reuters / Taiwan Presidential Office handout

Former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders spoke with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen at a diplomacy and regional security forum in Taipei earlier this week.

Taiwanese papers revealed that Sanders, who stepped down in July, offered a glimpse into the mindset of Donald Trump when he took a historic phone call from Tsai in December 2016 while he was still the president-elect.

The 10-minute chat marked the first direct conversation between a sitting Taiwanese leader and an incoming American president since Washington pulled out diplomats, severed ties and switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979.

The Trump-Tsai call infuriated Beijing, which lodged solemn representations to the not-yet-formed Trump administration. But it was celebrated as a significant diplomatic breakthrough for Tsai, who is hoping to leverage her warm ties with Washington, its unofficial ally, to convince voters she deserves another term in January.

Speaking at a luncheon at the Yushan Forum in Taipei, Sanders said the mainstream US media could not believe that Trump had beaten Hilary Clinton and won the 2016 election, and they were less than chuffed to see him win.

“And they were very unhappy when one of the very first things Trump did as president-elect was to take a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan,” Sanders said, adding that the call sent the US media into a frenzy.

“The president, of course, knew that we had a relationship with Taiwan, and he didn’t see what all the fuss was about, and he didn’t care,” said Sanders, who served as press secretary from July 2017 to July this year.

Sanders was known for her often contentious and sometimes strained relationship with the media, especially outlets that Trump accused of writing “fake news”.

Tsai shakes hands with former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders inside the Presidential Palace in Taipei. Photo: Handout
American and Taiwanese flags fly together. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Sanders said that while Trump had taken a hard line against Beijing on trade, he had also sought to strengthen US relations with allies across Asia including Taiwan since taking office, and the signing of the Taiwan Travel Act, the sale of F-16V fighter jets, combat tanks and missiles, plus ever closer military exchanges between the US and Taiwan were all proof of a concrete partnership.

Later, when answering questions about Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections in January, Sanders said she personally hoped Tsai could secure another term, though she stressed that she was merely speaking for herself as she no longer held any public office.

Other key figures attending the Yushan Forum who met with Tsai included former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and chief of the American Institute in Taiwan Brent Christensen.

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