All of a sudden, French President Emmanuel Macron wants to cuddle up with Donald Trump. But Macron should realize—and, after last weekend, probably does—that Trump just isn’t into him, or into anything else that Macron and most of the other heads of Europe represent.
Macron’s overture began on June 28, when he invited Trump to join him on the review stand for the annual Bastille Day parade, celebrating the storming of the barricades that set off the French Revolution. Just one month earlier, at a NATO summit in Brussels, the two had locked wrists in a “death-grip handshake,” which Macron later said he meant not at all innocently but rather as “a moment of truth” to show Trump that France would not “make small concessions—not even symbolic ones.” Tensions stiffened when Trump declined to recommit the U.S. to the mutual defense of Europe. (It was later revealed that he’d crossed out a line in his speech that would have done just that.) When Trump then pulled the U.S. out of the Paris agreement on climate change, Macron urged American scientists to take refuge in Paris, where their work would be appreciated.
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But sometime in the interim, Macron must have mulled that, uncouth as this new occupant of the White House may be, American leadership was vital to the defense and unity of Europe; so, as an aspiring leader of Europe, he should try to make friends. Hence the RSVP for the Bastille Day party on July 14, which Trump accepted.
Now, though, after the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Macron should maybe shrug off his hopes of a French-American reset. For the one thing, Trump clearly displayed that, unlike all other American presidents since the end of World War II, he has no interest in being the leader of the Western world.
His behavior at the summit proved the point in a few ways. First, although the G-20 is rarely a forum for dramatic action, American presidents usually arrange the agenda in a way that demonstrates their prominence. Trump came into this G-20 summit knowing that he would be in a minority—in some aspects, a minority of one—on issues of global warming and trade. Faced with that prospect, most presidents would push to the fore some other issue that advanced U.S. interests and appealed to most, if not all, of the other nations as well. There were plenty of such issues out there: North Korea’s latest missile test, the spread of Islamist terrorism, maybe a wild card like women’s equality or global hunger. All of these issues were discussed in the routine forums, but Trump didn’t grab the opportunity to make headlines from any of them. The only plausible explanation for why not is this: He didn’t want to.
Second, his much-anticipated, two-hours-plus meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was—from a European’s point of view—not just unimpressive but appalling. We may never know exactly what happened behind those closed doors, because no one was in the room besides the two presidents, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the translators. Usually, a National Security Council staffer sits in, if just to take notes, but there weren’t even any note-takers at this one. That said, the accounts given afterward by Tillerson and Lavrov, in separate press conferences, were consistent with each other, so conclusions can be drawn.
It turns out that, though Trump asked Putin whether he had interfered with America’s 2016 presidential election, Putin replied that he didn’t, and that seems to have been the end of it. (Lavrov claimed that Trump accepted Putin’s denial; Tillerson didn’t go that far but did say Trump wanted to look forward in their relations rather than “relitigate” the past—which amounts to the same thing.) The two presidents also discussed a joint cybersecurity unit, to prevent intrusions in elections of the future, which is like inviting the block’s most notorious burglar to join the neighborhood watch. It was so appalling (in Sen. Lindsey Graham’s words, “not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close”) that even Trump backpedaled in a later tweet.
The Europeans care a great deal about Putin’s land grabs in Ukraine, in part for what they might bode at some point for themselves. Yet, except for Tillerson’s announcement of a new special envoy to Kiev (to do what is unclear), the presences seem not to have discussed anything about Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his invasion of Ukraine’s eastern provinces, his cyberattacks on the electrical power grid, or anything else to do with the country.
In other words, in a meeting lasting longer than two hours, the American and Russian presidents did not discuss matters that would most concern the attendants of a G-20 summit—or if they did, no one is likely to learn what was said.
Third, Trump left Hamburg without holding a press conference, either solo or with some of the other leaders. This may be unprecedented. Instead, the White House released photographs of Trump talking with other leaders, sometimes smiling or looking brow-furrow concerned. And on the plane back to Washington, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster briefed the press in particularly dismaying fashion.
Cohn managed to preserve some of his dignity, spending most of his time merely listing the president’s meetings and speeches. McMaster focused on the trip that Trump took in Poland before the G-20 began, stressing America’s commitment to Polish and European freedom. But Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs banker who’d been one of Trump’s early campaign supporters, went all in, saying three times that his boss handled the meeting with Putin “brilliantly” (which he couldn’t have known, not being in the room) and once saying Trump was “brilliant” in his bilaterals with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May as well. I can’t recall a Cabinet secretary or any other senior official talking in public like such a fanboy about a president’s performance in a diplomatic setting, even if the joy bursts were accurate, which, in this case, we know, they were not.
But Mnuchin’s ecstatic ramblings are welcome in the sense that they expose Trump’s trip for what it was—an attempt to jack up his image, not so much to his G-20 colleagues (most of whom, he must know, dislike or distrust him) but rather to his die-hard supporters back home, many of whom like the fact that he’s on the outs with foreign governments.
On July 14, Bastille Day, thousands of French marchers, who would ordinarily be celebrating their revolution, will be protesting Trump’s very presence in their midst, even declaring vast public squares as “No Trump Zones.” It will be interesting to see how Trump and his base take that.