President Trump, who views norms like a teenager does curfews, shattered another tradition Wednesday when he became the first U.S. president to be laughed at by some of America’s closest allies at a NATO summit, a sign of his increasing isolation on the world stage.
Trump, who long has claimed his leadership has brought unprecedented respect to the United States, was not amused. He called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “two-faced,” scrubbed a scheduled news conference and headed for the airport.
The contretemps seemed a fitting finale to a contentious two-day summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the 29-nation military alliance that is struggling with internal rifts, Europe’s shifting political currents and Trump’s open clashes with America’s political and military allies over a host of issues.
During joint appearances over the last three years, world leaders have largely stood silently and patiently while Trump lavished praise on his self-described achievements and bitterly attacked his perceived enemies. On Tuesday, Trump vented to reporters about impeachment, Democrats and other vexations for more than two hours during his supposed private meetings with other leaders.
That night, a hot mic video caught by the Canadian Broadcast Corp. appeared to show three of America’s closest traditional allies — Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — laughing as Trudeau seemed to ridicule Trump over his extended news briefings.
“He was late because he takes a 40-minute press conference off the top,” Trudeau can be heard saying.
“Well, he’s two-faced,” Trump responded Wednesday when asked about the comment during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “He’s a nice guy. I find him to be a nice guy. But the truth is, I called him out on the fact that’s he’s not paying 2%, and I guess he’s not very happy about it.”
Trump was referring to his demand that NATO members honor a goal to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Canada has not met that standard.
The president apparently appreciated his own wit. After a working lunch with the leaders of nine nations that meet or exceed the 2% goal, another hot-mic moment heard him boast: “That was funny when I said that guy was two-faced.”
He also complained that Democrats leading the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing back in Washington were trying to weaken him on the world stage.
“To do it on a day like this, where we’re in England and some of the most powerful countries in the world [are] having very important NATO meetings. And it just happened to be scheduled on this day. It’s really, honestly, it’s a disgrace,” he told reporters.
Trump has long galvanized his supporters with the dubious claim that other countries laughed at previous presidents, but that they now respect him and the United States as never before.
The president has accepted that allies and adversaries might fear or resent him and his “America first” policies. But he sees ridicule as the highest form of insult, leading him to boycott the annual White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner roast since taking office, and to fume over “Saturday Night Live” parodies.
In September 2018, some members of the United Nations General Assembly laughed aloud when Trump used his address to claim his administration had accomplished more in fewer than two years than almost any administration in U.S. history.
“So true,” said Trump, who appeared surprised by the guffaws. “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” he added, to more laughter and some applause.
The NATO summit ended Wednesday with declarations of cooperation and assurances of mutual defense. But it revealed a visible shift in how America’s allies deal with Trump.
Leaders have gone from flattering Trump, to trying to accommodate him, to tolerating him, to trying to ignore him. They still need him, given America’s power and authority, but more often, they try to keep interactions at an arm’s length.
Johnson, who cast himself as a disruptive Trumpian figure, sought to avoid a public meeting with the president, who is deeply unpopular in Britain. The prime minister’s conservative allies worried Trump’s embrace could damage Johnson ahead of crucial parliamentary elections next week.
The two leaders met one-on-one Tuesday night outside the view of the press. But the meeting was kept off Trump’s schedule and not revealed until Trump tweeted about it Wednesday morning.
That may have contributed to Johnson’s apparent annoyance when Trump kept all the other leaders waiting 15 minutes for a group photo.
“How are we doing?” Johnson asked an aide. “Come on!”
Trump also met privately for 30 minutes Wednesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is facing the wrath of fellow NATO members for buying Russian missile systems and invading a Kurdish-controlled zone in northern Syria.
The White House confirmed the meeting only after Erdogan’s official Twitter account posted photos of it.
Trump insisted his accommodation of Erdogan has helped U.S. interests, even as it has cost the lives and territory of the Kurds, America’s longtime allies against Islamic State militants, and helped Russia bolster its power and influence in the region.
“Maybe someday they’ll give me credit, but probably not,” Trump said Wednesday.
Beyond Erdogan, many allies appear to have grown fatigued. Macron, once a prime flatterer of Trump, was unwilling to back down or play a willing prop when the two met Tuesday, hours after Trump had publicly attacked him.
“Let’s be serious,” Macron said when Trump appeared to make a joke that France might accept some Islamic State fighters, one of several times the French leader expressed strong public disagreement. Macron used the opportunity to dispute Trump’s claim that the threat from Islamic State had been all but eliminated.
At another point, Macron drew a wide distance from Trump’s transactional view of foreign policy, which puts a priority on which countries are willing to spend money on arms.
“When you speak about NATO, it’s not just about money,” he said, launching into a lecture about the “fundamentals of what NATO should be.”