July 9, 2017–If you thought President Donald J. Trump’s first foreign trip a disaster, the second has been even more extraordinary. In fact we’ve yet to finish mopping up the detritus of the first trip–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is off from Hamburg to try, by shuttle diplomacy, to mediate the Saudi blockade of U.S. ally Qatar that Mr. Trump approved on that first trip. Here, on the second, more booby-traps were set.
For starters let’s look at the prep. You do something, mess it up, and do better the next time, right? Some of the talking heads–the ones who weren’t praising Mr. Trump’s alleged brilliance–took that line after the first trip. Now? I bet they all speak of our brilliant president. But the truth is neither of those things applies. Brilliant results? We’ll get to that in a minute. But better preparations? Laughable! The Polish leg of this trip amounted to pure PR stunt. Warsaw merely provided backdrop for a saber-rattling speech.
The Hamburg summit, a meeting of the Group of 20, the union of the world’s largest economies, was bound to be problematic given Trump’s climate denialism and anti-trade stances. Despite that, careful advance work could have minimized the damage. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German host, brought together Europe, Russia, China and Japan–everyone but the U.S.–in a show of unity. A photograph of a break in the conference, with Mr. Trump sitting alone by himself while officials from all over the world chattered excitedly behind the table, said it all. The United States is not just alone it is irrelevant. This from the man who was going to make America great again.
Donald Trump’s much-discussed meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin took place at Hamburg. This first encounter of the two presidents was the most significant event of the trip. Worth getting right. From the perspective of United States foreign policy, Mr. Trump did everything possible to make this event a disaster. He made it impossible to keep a tangible record on the U.S. side. He permitted no professionals or experienced advisers in the room. He resisted having an agenda. As a result the Russian foreign minister went off to claim one thing, with the American secretary of state left to paint a picture that could differ only in nuance without inviting Moscow to contradict him. This arrangement may have suited Donald Trump’s personal interests–but that only shows, again, that this president puts personal ahead of national interest.
Back to Warsaw. White House staffer Stephen Miller bragged about Trump’s speech, which appears to have been reaching for an invocation of the inaugural address, but one with a more international flair. The most pompous rhetoric, invoking the “decline of the West,” was attributed to Mr. Trump personally, on Air Force One, as Miller, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and the president huddled over the text. Here’s a fresh failure from “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see, “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” in this space, May 17, 2017). To say there is an existential threat to the existence of the West is a huge (“Yuge”?) distortion of reality–and, if there is, an America backing away from NATO is in no position to contain it. For Donald Trump to assert he will be the West’s savior is pure bombast. General McMaster ought to have warned his president against this bit of foolishness.
Trump took the occasion in Warsaw to denounce the U.S. media and American intelligence services, once again, for speaking of a Russian political influence operation aimed at America’s 2016 election. Not only was that an improper act–carrying the nation’s internal disputes to foreign lands, Trump used the assertion as platform for asking Polish leaders if they have similar problems with their press. As it happens, the Polish government has been imposing authoritarian restrictions on media, which Donald Trump supported with this sally. This amounts to extending, not draining, the swamp.
And it put Trump in the worst possible position to begin his unscripted talk with Vladimir Putin. Obliged to raise the issue of Russian political meddling, Trump started from where he had denounced this as “fake news.” He virtually invited Putin to denounce the charge, which the Russian was happy to do. At the end, Secretary Tillerson tried to extend the cloak of invisibility over the covert operation, using the old saw that what is important is to move forward, not dwell in the past. As Air Force One took off for the return to the U.S., the New York Times put out the story of yet another meeting with a Russian connection–organized by Donald Jr., and attended by campaign big shot Paul Manafort, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, this one took place a month ahead of the political convention that nominated Trump for the Republican Party.
General McMaster, on the plane, declared that “What the president and Secretary Tillerson charged us with as they came out of the [Putin] meeting is what we’re going to do going forward.” Watch out for the booby-traps.