Donald Trump is doing what he does best: Transforming a serious trip into a rolling pageant of can’t believe-your-eyes, made-for-TV moments.
The reality show host-turned US President ran through his full repertoire of flattery, threats and weapons-grade disinformation at a meeting of NATO leaders in London on Tuesday. In televised scenes lasting 52, 39 and 30 minutes, Trump engineered confrontations with other world leaders that normally unfold behind closed doors. It was a hell of a show. But what does it all add up to?
To start, Trump left no doubt that his contribution to America’s foreign policy is largely off-the-cuff.
He meandered on where the US stands on NATO, Turkey, his trade deal with China, a tariff duel with France and US support for Iranian protesters. He was clear about berating Beijing and allies alike, but almost everything he said appeared to favor domestic political motives rather than some overarching US interest. (If this sounds familiar, well, it’s the core question at the root of the impeachment drama.)
Perhaps more troubling for Trump, another trend also emerged: Foreign leaders appeared immune to Trump’s bullying style, having learned that flattery doesn’t pay. Completing a journey from Trump sycophant to antagonist, Emmanuel Macron defended his diagnosis of NATO’s “brain death” — and cast Trump into the unexpected position of defending the alliance. As Trump needled him about ISIS fighters, Macron snapped “Let’s be serious.”
Even gentle Justin Trudeau bit back, reminding Trump of Canadian blood shed in America’s post 9/11 wars when he skewered the Candian Prime Minister over defense spending.
Foreign leaders’ spines are stiffening. Add that to the fact that China’s in no hurry to ink a trade deal and North Korea just keeps testing missiles, and it’s all beginning to hint at an unpalatable truth for Trump: The self-proclaimed dealmaker hasn’t got much of a foreign policy legacy to show for all his bluster. And with less than a year before the next election, his time to make one may be running out.
‘Let’s be serious
The day’s festivities in London produced a number of bafflingly contradictory claims. Here are a few of our favorites:
Trump: “They’re mostly from Europe.”
Macron: “Let’s be serious: The very large numbers of fighters you have on the ground are the fighters coming from Syria, from Iraq and the region.”
Pompeo: “As I said to the people of Iran almost a year and a half ago: The United States is with you.”
Trump: “The answer is no.”
Trump, hours later: “We do support them totally and have supported them from the beginning.” (He said he misheard the question.)
NATO in May 2019: It’s a “summit.”
NATO IN Dec 2019: It’s a “leaders’ meeting.”
Trump: “If you handed it to us on a silver platter, we wouldn’t want it.”
Official US negotiating objectives, Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices section: “provide full market access for US products.”
‘I think about it all the time’
During his meeting with Trudeau, Trump was asked whether he ever thought about climate change. Does he ever! He responded:
“I think about it all the time. … And honestly, climate change is very important to me. And, you know, I’ve done many environmental impact statements over my life and I believe … very strongly in very, very crystal clear, clean water and clean air. That’s a big part of climate change.
“I also see what’s happening with our oceans, where certain countries are dumping unlimited loads of things in it. They float. They tend to float toward the United States. I see that happening, and nobody’s ever seen anything like it, and it’s gotten worse.
“But no, it’s very important to me also. But I want clean air and clean water. That would be number one and number two. Very important.”
Trump’s fascinating response shows how he waffles when he’s stuck in a difficult spot, often stacking non sequiturs. Clean air and oceans are important issues — but they’re pretty distant from the issue of climate change.
Meanwhile, he has crusaded against regulations designed to limit climate change — a political choice because acknowledging global warming would conflict with his hopes of supercharging US industry, the economy and thereby his own reelection.
It’s been a while since a US presidential campaign started with such promise and ended with such a splat. But Kamala Harris, once a rock star Democratic candidate, is out.
She launched her bid before a 20,000 strong crowd, drawing comparisons to the last Democratic president, Barack Obama. But after weeks of plunging polls and flatlining fundraising, the California senator has bowed to the inevitable. “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign. And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete,” Harris said in a video to supporters, with a clear jab to the race’s wealthier contestants.
But in retrospect, apart from a few powerful debate performances, Harris was not ready for prime time. She never seemed sure whether to court the party’s liberal left or moderate center. Tales of dysfunction in her campaign braintrust swamped her media coverage. And her political persona as a hard-charging prosecutor bent on securing justice for Americans and administering it to Trump never really caught on. Many will wonder whether the prospect of the country’s first black female president gave Harris an even tougher hill to climb.
At 55, she is young enough to have a second act in a possible future campaign or even a vice presidential nomination, but she has work ahead to rebuild her brand. Her plight reveals how cruelly unforgiving the US campaign trail can be, from which few hopefuls who set off with visions of the White House emerge enhanced.