Why does he do these things?
Three days into President Trump‘s rampage through Europe — after the upending of the NATO summit and the casual shivving of British Prime Minister Theresa May — “why” is the question on the minds of U.S. and foreign government officials, analysts and many voters.
Some see conspiracy — arguing that Trump’s actions match what Moscow would want a U.S. leader to do. Others blame the psychology of a man who, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth once said of her father, Theodore Roosevelt, “wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding and the baby at every christening.”
CHAOS AT EVERY STEP
Before Trump departed for Europe, many U.S. foreign policy experts worried about what he might do, as Noah Bierman wrote. The biggest worries, however, focused on the final station on his itinerary — Monday’s meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland. As events have turned out, that may prove the least dramatic of his stops.
Trump opened the trip with a blast at Germany, saying at a breakfast that the Germans were “totally controlled by” and “captive to Russia” because of their purchases of Russian natural gas.
As Eli Stokols wrote, his words provided the latest example of one of Trump’s characteristic practices — accusing others of behavior he has been accused of.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, frosty toward Trump since the start of his administration, took the attack calmly. Having grown up in East Germany, she knew what actually being controlled by Russia felt like, she told reporters.
“I am very happy that today we are united in freedom,” she told reporters. “Because of that we can say that we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions.”
Ironically, the Baltic Sea gas pipeline that Trump complained about is a project pushed by the man Merkel beat to become chancellor more than a dozen years ago. Former German leader Gerhard Schroeder signed the pipeline deal in 2005, just days after losing the election that brought Merkel to power.
U.S. administrations going back at least to George W. Bush have objected to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Why Trump decided to bring it up now, and so forcefully, remains a mystery.
It’s worth noting, however, that some U.S. oil and gas interests, who have considerable influence with the administration, think they could sell significant amounts of liquified natural gas to Europe if the pipeline to Russia were blocked.
Trump’s other big issue, which he raised at the breakfast, involves military spending by NATO members. For years, U.S. administrations have complained that Europe doesn’t spend enough on its own defense, as David Cloud explained.
Trump has seized on that issue with a vengeance, depicting it as another example of Europe “taking advantage” of the U.S.
For the rest of the NATO summit’s first day, however, Trump was all smiles. Then, just as the meeting approached its close, and European leaders began to relax, he upended its second day, issuing a thinly veiled threat that he might pull the U.S. out of the alliance if the Europeans didn’t immediately and dramatically increase their defense spending.
A few hours later, another turnabout: Trump declared at a news conference that all was well. The allies at their morning meeting had agreed to new commitments on spending, he said — something that French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte both later denied.
The next blow came with some stealth. Before leaving Brussels to head for London, Trump sat for an interview with Britain’s Sun, a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. As Stokols wrote, Trump told the paper that May had ignored his advice on how to negotiate with the European Union over Britain’s exit from the common market. He said her rival, Boris Johnson, would make a “great prime minister” and he denounced immigration to Europe as a threat to Western culture.
That evening, Trump attended a lavish dinner that May hosted for him at Blenheim Palace. The Sun released the interview just after he departed the banquet, blindsiding the prime minister. White House officials, implausibly, said they had expected the Sun to publish the interview in the morning.
The Sun quickly predicted that its interview would “pour nitroglycerin” on the fight already taking place inside May’s Conservative Party over whether to unseat her.
Friday, standing next to May at a news conference, Trump insisted that the Sun had taken his remarks out of context. “I didn’t criticize the prime minister… it didn’t say what I said,” he said, despite the fact that the Sun already had released the audio of Trump’s comments.
Why do all that?
Trump’s tactics don’t appear aimed at winning any strategic goal — the European commitment on defense spending, for example, hasn’t changed significantly since they agreed on a goal of 2% of GDP with President Obama in 2014.
The conspiracy minded have a simple answer: Putin helped Trump win his election, now Trump is returning the favor by weakening the Western alliance. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, however, and we’re a long way from enough evidence to prove that one.
Consider another possibility: This is how Trump, 72, has operated his entire adult life — hogging the spotlight, keeping everyone off balance, undermining potential rivals, mistrusting potential allies. And, of course, being perceived as tough on the Europeans plays well with at least some Trump voters.
Trump’s not likely to change the habits of a lifetime, so expect more to come. Next stop, Finland station.
NORTH KOREA TALKS SOUR
Another habit of Trump’s is to exaggerate his successes. After his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un, Trump declared the North Korean nuclear threat to be over. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Pyongyang for a follow-up meeting, the North Koreans made clear that’s not true.
As Tracy Wilkinson reported, North Korea accused the U.S. of making “unilateral” demands and acting like a “robber” in its insistence that Pyongyang quickly abandon its nuclear arsenal. Pompeo wasn’t even given a meeting with Kim, shunted off, instead, to the leader’s advisors.
Pompeo the next day insisted the nuclear talks remain on track, which may well be true — North Korea has a long history of bluster and feints in negotiations. Clearly, though, the road will be much longer than Trump wants to admit.
Pompeo’s next diplomatic foray, as Wilkinson reported, is to Mexico, as he heads a delegation in an overture to the newly elected president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
FAMILY SEPARATION CRISIS CONTINUES
One topic high on the agenda with the Mexicans will be immigration. The administration wants Mexico’s help in stopping the flow of Central Americans seeking refuge from violence in their home countries. Mexico will want something in return.
In the meantime, the administration so far has missed a court deadline to reunite toddlers with their parents. As Brittny Mejia reported, only about half of the roughly 100 migrant children under 5 have been given back to their families. Some of the parents already have been deported, others haven’t been located and a handful, according to administration officials, have criminal records that make them ineligible.
At the same time, the administration appears to be backing away from its strict “zero tolerance” policy. The families that have been reunited are being given parole and released with monitoring devices, rather than being held in immigration detention. Whether the administration will follow the same pattern with the much larger group of families of children 5 and older remains to be seen. The government has a July 26 deadline to return those children to their parents.
In Guatemala, Patrick McDonnell met a couple who fear for their child still in detention in the U.S. “What if I lose her forever?” they asked.
The attention to family separations has fueled calls on the left to “abolish ICE.” As Mark Barabak reported, the slogan, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, has heated up the midterm debate.
This week, as Sarah Wire reported, three Democrats introduced a bill to reorganize ICE. Republicans, seeing a chance to paint Democrats as extremists, plan to bring the measure to a vote. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus said Friday that it will advise Democrats to vote against the measure to avoid giving Republicans an issue.
REMAKING THE SUPREME COURT
Trump went with the insider front runner, Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, to replace Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. David Savage, who tipped Kavanaugh as the most likely nominee only hours after Kennedy stepped down, outlined why Kavanaugh was the candidate that the conservative legal establishment most wanted.
As Sarah Wire reported before the nomination, Democrats’ have a long-shot plan to stop Trump’s Supreme Court pick, but it depends on creating enough public opposition to pick off at least one Republican senator.
In the aftermath of the nomination, Wire and Bierman reported that Democrats increasingly were focused on healthcare as the most promising issue to slow the nomination. Meantime, the White House moved to soften Kavanaugh’s image.
One problem for the GOP: Kavanaugh has a long trail of writings and speeches that could raise issues. Savage reported on one recent speech in which Kavanaugh lauded the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist for dissenting in Roe vs. Wade and supporting school prayer.
AN EFFORT TO COPE WITH CLIMATE CHANGE
At a hurricane-resistant laboratory in the Florida Keys, scientists are racing to save Florida’s coral from climate change, using a once-unthinkable strategy: “assisted evolution,” Evan Halper reports. Check out the story and the amazing underwater photos by Carolyn Cole.
DRIVERLESS CARS AND CAPITOL HILL
Congress has so far mostly stayed out of the debate over driverless cars. But that’s starting to change as companies look to Washington to free them from state safety standards, Eliza Fawcett reported.
VIP JAIL FOR FORMER TRUMP AIDE
As Paul Manafort awaits a trial scheduled to start later this month in Virginia, he’s gotten VIP jail treatment, complete with a private phone line, a laptop and his own shower, Chris Megerian reported. But the plush treatment may have come to an end as a result of Manafort’s own legal maneuvering.
Meantime, Republicans on Capitol Hill spent an entire day attacking FBI agent Peter Strzok over texts critical of Trump that he sent.
As Fawcett reported, Strzok held his own during eight hours of intense questioning, denying that his distaste for Trump had affected his work and accusing the Republicans of providing “another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”
A PATH FOR DEMOCRATS?
As Democrats seek a way back to relevance in Trump country, Richard Ojeda, a fiery populist, veteran and labor supporter, appears to be leading a congressional race in a strongly pro-Trump district in West Virginia. As Halper reported, his campaign has attracted considerable attention and provides a strong counterpoint to the business-friendly centrist path followed by the state’s leading Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin.
FAREWELL FROM CHRISTINA BELLANTONI
A quick note of thanks to our readers, who have been with us through countless debates and protests, critical elections, legislative wrangling and major changes in the political power centers in the nearly three years since we started Essential Politics. I’ve appreciated your calls, emails, tweets, story tips and letters, and have been grateful for the interaction as we worked to tell political stories in new ways and get people more engaged in California politics.
I’ll be tackling a new adventure as a professor leading the student newsroom at USC Annenberg. We’ll continue to work with The Times in lots of ways, so stay tuned. And if we do it right, you might just see Annenberg’s work as the students hold politicians accountable and cover the biggest stories in Los Angeles.
Please continue to support The Times with your loyal readership — and subscriptions. You make great journalism possible, and that will only grow in the organization’s bright days ahead under new ownership.
Thank you, and don’t forget to vote.
And, as always, if you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.