President Trump arrives in Paris on Thursday for a hastily planned visit to meet with France’s new, young president and attend Bastille Day celebrations, his first public appearances after four days that have been dominated by mounting questions over what he knew about Russian efforts to assist his campaign.
The unusual four-day stretch without a public appearance came as Trump’s administration tried to cope with the most threatening news to date in the long-running Russia inquiry: his eldest son’s attempt last year to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton from a Russian lawyer who was described to him as connected to the Kremlin.
Trump’s aides had initially planned to have the president spend much of this week pressing Congress to act on his imperiled healthcare initiative. Beyond two tweets from the president on Monday, the healthcare push was not evident.
Instead, on Monday, a group of evangelical pastors and religious leaders prayed with Trump in the Oval Office, with some laying their hands on the president, their heads bowed, according to photos posted online. And on Wednesday he gave an interview to the conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, host of “The 700 Club” program, on Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
The moves highlighted the White House’s strategy of solidifying support among evangelical conservatives, a core constituency.
In the CBN interview, Trump spoke for the first time about his lengthy sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 in Hamburg last week.
"I think we get along very, very well. We are a tremendously powerful nuclear power, and so are they. It doesn't make sense not to have some kind of a relationship," Trump said, pointing to a cease-fire in a section of Syria the two leaders negotiated during that meeting.
Trump also asserted, contrary to what is indicated by his son’s emails and the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community, that Putin really would have preferred to see Clinton win the 2016 election.
“Why would he want me?” Trump said, citing his support for more money for the U.S. military and energy production.
Judging from his daily tweets, Trump has spent much of this week stewing in frustration over the nonstop media coverage of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer and his emails related to it.
“I think that the president is, I would say, frustrated with the process of the fact that this continues to be an issue,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “And he would love for us to be focused on things [like] … the economy, on healthcare, on tax reform, on infrastructure.”
The focus on the Russia investigation has undoubtedly complicated Trump’s stalled legislative agenda. But his quick and hastily assembled Paris visit isn’t likely to advance that program.
Trump was invited by French President Emmanuel Macron just two weeks ago to see the French national day parade on the city’s grand boulevard, the Champs-Elysees, and mark the 100th anniversary this year of U.S. troops coming to France’s aid in World War I.
Now, questions about how much Trump knew about the Russian government’s effort to help his campaign will probably overshadow the pomp and circumstance of the trip, which was initially designed to bring together Macron and Trump, both surprise winners in their countries’ recent elections.
On Thursday, Trump will go to the tombs of Emperor Napoleon and France’s World War I commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. The time spent in Paris’ regal halls and Friday’s parade down the Champs-Elysees will provide the ceremony and photo ops that Trump enjoys. It is the first time in more than a quarter of a century that a U.S. president has been invited for Bastille Day.
The White House has agreed that Trump, who broke with tradition and avoided the media at the G-20 summit, will hold a joint news conference with Macron after the two leaders meet privately to discuss ways to combat terrorism and cooperate on the next steps in Syria. It would be the first time he’s faced reporters since his son’s controversial emails were released.
Macron had hoped the visit would be a chance to showcase his own diplomatic skills, especially with an American president nearly twice his age, and to assert France’s prominence on the world stage.
“This is a risky political maneuver for Macron,” given Trump’s high unfavorable ratings in France and Europe, “but it adds to his luster as someone who breaks the mold, and, by stepping up, it raises France’s game,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
At first blush, the two presidents could not be more different. Macron, 39, is a globalist who believes in European integration and multinational alliances. Trump, 71, espouses an “America first” doctrine that is increasingly isolating his country. Macron was angry when Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord in which almost every country in the world agreed to take action against global warming.
But they also share areas of agreement. Officials from both countries said the presidents’ discussions will focus on fighting terrorism, which both governments have cited as their No. 1 priority. France has suffered a string of devastating terrorist attacks, including one in Nice on Bastille Day a year ago. France also is one of the United States’ closest military partners in the war against the Islamic State.
Although Macron has a reputation as an anti-establishment maverick, having ridden to political power with a party he recently founded, he has numerous centrist, establishment-oriented viewpoints.
On immigration, Macron has at times sounded more like Trump than some other European leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who welcomed more than a million refugees to her country.
Although France has never proposed a ban on Muslims, Macron on Wednesday said on Twitter that it was crucial to distinguish between political refugees and economic immigrants, suggesting the latter need not receive the same favorable reception.
The final G-20 communique last week borrowed some of Trump’s language on immigration, saying that a country’s “sovereignty” had to be respected in admitting refugees. French officials said this week they were “comfortable” with the language.
There is less agreement on other issues, such as Syria and Iran. France is much more insistent on the removal from power of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And France is enthusiastically supportive of the landmark arms control agreement with Iran that limits Tehran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. Trump has said it was a terrible deal and threatened to walk away from it.
Those issues are not likely to dominate the conversations, aides say.
For Trump, the Paris visit is something of a “do-over” where Europe is concerned. His two previous visits, to Italy and Brussels for summits in May and to Germany last week for the G-20, were marked by awkward moments that exposed Trump’s growing isolation.
“The difference between France and all the other European countries in its relation to the United States is that since the election campaigns, there hasn’t been as much open criticism from either side,” said Boris Toucas, a French visiting fellow in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That gives Macron and Trump “more room to maneuver,” he said.