For Trump, it’s all personal; ideology takes second place
He referred to Meghan Markle as “nasty,” called London’s mayor a “stone cold loser” and, between official events, found time to lash out at Bette Midler, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the media.
But one thing President Trump did not do on his just-completed five-day trip to Europe is fulfill the dreams of some of his backers — and the fears of opponents — and assert leadership of the right-wing populist movements that have shaken up politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Rather than working to further destabilize Europe, Trump celebrated two of his nation’s oldest alliances, which he had previously belittled and undermined, and basked in the glow of a formal dinner with Queen Elizabeth II.
Moreover, Trump’s malleability on serious policy matters and expressed indifference to the outcomes were striking throughout the week, casting his only-tentative commitment to Europe’s hard-line populists into sharper relief.
In the United Kingdom, Trump breezily opined that Brexit, the three-year saga of exiting the European Union that has turned British politics upside down, will work out and “be good for the country.”
After criticizing Prime Minister Theresa May a year ago for being unable to negotiate a Brexit deal, a failure that forced her to resign as of Friday, Trump lavished praise on May, even joking at a news conference Tuesday that she should “stick around” to work on a post-Brexit trade agreement.
Former presidential advisor Steve Bannon has ensconced himself in Europe’s finest hotel rooms in recent months, opining to the media and anyone who will hear him out that Trump is part of a growing nationalist movement, unofficially aligned with other right-wing party leaders, including Nigel Farage in Britain and Marine Le Pen in France.
But Trump has shown little interest in any such role, beyond casual lip service. He likes to say that he predicted Brexit’s success — although his specific claim that he forecast the election results the day before while at his Scottish golf resort is provably false. But he’s done little, if anything, to advance European populist causes.
Trump did meet with Farage, the Brexit Party leader, but it was a low-key private affair at the U.S. ambassador’s residence without a photo op. In France, he met cordially with President Emmanuel Macron and no opposition figures.
“There was this idea that because the president embraced Brexit during the campaign, and is close to Farage, that they would get preferential treatment, that the U.K. could rekindle its ‘special relationship’ with the U.S.,” said Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative.
“The reality is that Trump hasn’t shown great interest in this relationship.”
When asked about Farage and Boris Johnson, the pro-Brexit Conservative figure who hopes to succeed May, Trump said only that he “likes” them both — he was just as effusive, if not more, in speaking about May and Macron. He avoided making any endorsement in Britain’s leadership fight.
He spoke of their cause as a distant observer with only a passing interest in British politics.
On Tuesday, he said he’s “interested” to find out how Brexit is eventually carried out.
On Thursday, he marveled at the dilemma facing the U.K. like someone consuming a TV drama who’s unlikely to be affected by it.
“I find this to be sort of an amazing period of time,” he said.
Trump was similarly nonchalant in Ireland on Wednesday, after flying there from London in order to spend two nights at his golf resort at Doonbeg.
During a short, hastily arranged meeting at Shannon Airport, Trump suggested to Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a physical border wall would help Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., separate itself from its neighbor to the south, which remains in the EU.
But when the young prime minister quickly reminded him that Ireland doesn’t want a hard border, Trump immediately reversed himself, revealing a less than full understanding of just how painful the Brexit process has been for the countries involved.
“The big thing is going to be your border, and hopefully that’s going to work out, and I think it will work out,” he said.
In France on Thursday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-day, he told an audience that included the last living members of “The Greatest Generation” that America is greater now than it’s ever been — but he also made perhaps his strongest statement as president in support of the transatlantic alliances that he has often deprecated.
“Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war and proven in the blessings of peace,” Trump said during the official ceremony at the American cemetery above Omaha Beach. “Our bond is unbreakable.”
That’s a far cry from Trump’s past grousing about NATO as a financial burden and his reference to the EU as a trading “foe.”
Those sentiments, read from a teleprompter, go only part of the way to redressing the problems that Trump has caused in U.S. alliances since taking office, said R. Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“The transatlantic relationship is in poor shape in large part to President Trump distancing the U.S. from our closest allies,” Burns said. “He has demonstrated the weakest attachment to NATO of any president in 70 years.”
Though Macron and May have continued to take issue with Trump on a number of subjects, from climate change to his withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, they did not seek to push the president this week, at least not publicly.
When appearing before reporters at the start of a private meeting Thursday following the D-day ceremony, Trump and Macron both responded to a question about their divide on Iran by downplaying any disagreement.
“I don’t think we have differences over Iran,” Trump declared. “I don’t think that the president wants to see nuclear weapons, and neither do I. And that’s what it’s all about.”
Macron, who has over the last two years tried both the carrot and the stick approach with his unpredictable counterpart, simply concurred, having apparently learned the key lesson of dealing with Trump — everything is personal.
As Queen Elizabeth’s guest of honor at a state banquet, Trump happily played the role of the honored guest, enjoying all the trappings — mirrored ballrooms and motorcades, honor guards and 21-gun salutes — that come along with the presidency.
Outwardly humbled in a manner rarely, if ever seen, Trump repeatedly praised the 93-year-old monarch as “an incredible woman”; he boasted a day after sitting beside her about having “spent so much time” with her.
“I feel like I know her so well, and she certainly knows me very well right now,” he said.
By contrast, those he criticized harshly this week, mostly in tweets, had all spoken negatively about him.
Frustrated by protesters who took to the streets around London’s Parliament Square on Tuesday — and by television news coverage that showed the crowds in the street beneath a giant “Baby Trump” balloon, Trump, without being asked a single question on the subject, repeatedly asserted that the demonstrations didn’t actually exist and were a media hoax.
He claimed instead that “there were thousands of people cheering” for him in the street. While there were Trump supporters mixed in with the protesters, there were no reports of the throngs of supporters he described.
Whether raising a crystal glass to the queen, strutting up to the door of 10 Downing Street or down the red carpet during the D-day ceremony to an overlook above the Normandy coastline, Trump relished the international spotlight — and he soaked up a level of deference to him, or at least his office, that he’s been missing back home in a politically warring Washington.
“Trump does appear to revel in the symbolism and pageantry of state visits and summits,” Burns said. “He is not the first president to be so entranced by it but is certainly more self-obsessed than any in our memory.”
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