THE MEMO: Trump seeks fresh start with wary Europe
President Trump will come face to face with European leaders Thursday and Friday in what will likely be the toughest test of his nine-day trip abroad.
Trump will meet NATO leaders on Thursday in Brussels and attend a meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) on Friday and Saturday in Sicily. The G7 includes Japan and Canada as well as the U.S. and leading European powers.
Both occasions could see tensions resurfacing between Trump and major figures from Western Europe. No one expects outright hostility at the gatherings, but that does not mean it will be smooth sailing.
“I would say that everyone is trying to get along as well as possible. But it is probably a bit like a forced Christmas dinner, with some parts of your family that you’re not entirely thrilled about being with,” said Brent Nelsen, a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University.
Nelsen, who specializes in European politics, was speaking in particular about the frosty relationship between Trump and German chancellor Angela Merkel.
In the aftermath of Trump’s election win last November, the chancellor released a conspicuously lukewarm statement about how the U.S. and Germany were “connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man.” She went on to offer “close cooperation” to Trump, but only on “the basis of these values.”
When Merkel came to the White House in March, much of the media coverage focused on the awkward body language between the two leaders. There was even a small controversy over whether Trump had snubbed Merkel’s request to shake hands in front of photographers in the Oval Office.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president had not heard Merkel ask, “Do you want to have a handshake?”
British prime minister Theresa May had political difficulties of her own due to a White House meeting. She became the first foreign leader to meet with Trump in person, just one week after his inauguration.
Though the chemistry seemed better than it would do in the Trump-Merkel meeting, the president signed the first iteration of his deeply controversial travel ban within hours of May leaving the White House.
“The papers here all ran the pictures of them hand-in-hand — and by the time people were reading those papers, they were also hearing that Trump had banned Muslims,” said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist with The Guardian, the liberal-leaning British newspaper.
Still, Freedland acknowledged that it would be in the interests of all the leaders, at both the NATO and G7 events, to avoid any overt discord. The problem was the broader political atmosphere that surrounds Trump, he said.
“For government leaders, they have to make this work. But for opposition leaders, for the media, there is a sense that Trump is always either falling flat on his face or self-destructing. People will be looking for that to happen.”
There is some tension on substantive issues, too, though it has receded somewhat since Trump took office.
He has moved away from some of the most contentious stances that he adopted during the campaign, several of which had discomfited Europeans.
He no longer considers NATO “obsolete,” as he once said he did. He will also reportedly reaffirm his commitment to the alliance’s foundational principle: that the United States will come to the defense of any member state that is attacked. That, too, had once seemed in doubt.
Trump aides have also insisted that his emphasis on the reluctance of some member nations to pay their NATO dues is having an effect.
On Wednesday, the White House emailed reporters excerpts of a news story that contrasted former President Obama’s diplomatic statements to Trump’s more vigorous critique.
“It was Trump’s undiplomatic rhetoric that got the issue at the top of the group’s agenda this week,” stated the story from McClatchy.
There are other promising signs for Trump. Critics had forecast that he was likely to trip up while navigating the complex politics of the Middle East during earlier legs of his international journey.
In fact, the president got generally warm reviews for a major speech in Riyadh, met separately with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority as he sought to revitalize the peace process and had an uncontroversial — if not especially warm — meeting with Pope Francis at The Vatican.
“It was in some ways a surprisingly or uncharacteristically normal trip,” Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday, referring mainly to the Riyadh speech. “What didn’t happen was at least as important as what happened — we are not talking about things associated with it.”
There is another, somber reason why the leaders, including Trump, will want to put forth a unified face this week.
The terrorist attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, on Monday killed 22 people, and its aftermath continues to reverberate. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the apparent suicide bombing, which authorities believe was carried out by 22-year-old Salman Abedi.
“That certainly colors everything, and obviously the president is very concerned about terrorism,” Nelsen said. “He is probably going to underline once again the need to defeat ISIS. It plays into his main narrative that this is the main threat to our world.”
Terrorism will likely loom larger than any other issue, but the differences between Trump and his European counterparts will not disappear anytime soon.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.