President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on Air Force One on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., following a trip to the NATO Summit in England. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
(Written by Annie Karni and Katie Rogers)President Donald Trump arrived in London on Monday evening planning to tout a foreign policy accomplishment his presidential campaign wants him to run on: successfully pressuring allies to pay more toward the costs of running NATO.
Less than 48 hours later — after he was put on the defensive in front of the cameras and then was the subject of gossip at a reception of world leaders, a moment caught in a viral video — Trump cancelled a planned news conference before heading back to Washington earlier than planned.
The timing was not perfect. Trump had hoped the 70th anniversary celebration of NATO might provide a flattering stage and a triumphant narrative, even as Democrats on Capitol Hill on Wednesday trotted out sober legal scholars to testify at the House Judiciary Committee’s first public impeachment hearing.
But instead of creating a split screen, Trump failed to produce the statesmanlike narrative his campaign had hoped for. The result was he appeared boxed in both at home and abroad, ultimately overshadowed by diplomatic dynamics that put him on his back foot.
“We’ll go directly back,” Trump told reporters before a meeting Wednesday with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, as he surprised his aides by abruptly scrapping plans for a formal news conference. “I think we’ve answered plenty of questions.”
Trump had, in fact, answered hours of scattershot questions from the news media by the time the gathering was over. But his quiet departure from Britain — without a splashy tabloid newspaper interview or a sit-down with a friendly television personality, or the set-piece final news conference he typically conducts when abroad — seemed to show an uncharacteristic admission of defeat.
“The NATO declaration and meeting outcome was successful but all the political fireworks around the leaders’ meeting was not,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There simply was nothing else to say other than to continue to further complicate NATO political dynamics.”
Trump arrived in London already something of a persona non grata. His political kindred spirit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, had made it clear he had no interest in any show of support from a president who is seen by many of Johnson’s supporters as radioactive. He warned Trump to stay out of the British election, set for Dec. 12.
But the dim view that many European leaders themselves hold of Trump later burst into public view by accident. A video surfaced that showed grinning world leaders at a Buckingham Palace reception Tuesday night, apparently commiserating in what they thought was a private conversation about the unmanageable behaviour of the American president.
“He was late because he takes a 40-minute news conference at the top,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said to a small group that included President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, Johnson and Princess Anne.
In the video, which was posted online by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Trudeau does not mention Trump by name. But later in the day, he acknowledged he had been discussing the American president.
“You just watch his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” Trudeau said at another point in the video, expressing astonishment at Trump’s behaviour. Macron is also seen participating animatedly in the conversation, but his comments cannot be heard. Johnson is seen smiling. Anne looks on.
None of the world leaders seemed to realize the conversation was being recorded. But the video played directly into Trump’s own fixation with rival leaders laughing at him, or at the United States.
By Wednesday afternoon, some of the participants were seeking to distance themselves from the perceived criticism of Trump.
During a news conference, Johnson claimed ignorance of the widely circulated video.
“I don’t know where that has come from,” he said. “I really don’t know what is being referred to there.”
Johnson even managed to get through the entire news conference without uttering Trump’s name.
In the past, Trump has been loathe to give up the spotlight, especially if he would be ceding it to a televised impeachment hearing unfolding on Capitol Hill.
“President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by corruptly abusing the office of the presidency,” Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard University, testified Wednesday in Washington as Trump was wrapping up the last of his meetings with European leaders abroad.
Feldman was one of three constitutional scholars invited by Democrats to testify at the hearing. All three said Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for political gain met the historical definition of impeachable offenses.
But Trump did not have a positive story to tell that would distract from the hearing. The narrative unfolding in London was of his soured relationships with foreign leaders.
“He’s two-faced,” Trump said of Trudeau, when asked about the viral video. He attributed Trudeau’s apparent frustration to the US leader’s pressure campaign to increase Canada’s military spending to 2% of its economic output.
“He should be paying more than he’s paying,” Trump said. “I called him out on that, and I’m sure he wasn’t happy about it, but that’s the way it is.”
Trump was already on the defensive after a 45-minute joint appearance Tuesday with Macron, who arrived at the celebration fresh off an explosive interview with The Economist magazine, in which he said the loss of American leadership in Europe has led to “the brain death of NATO.”
During their news conference, the French president aggressively challenged Trump’s vision for NATO and broached tensions over Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, which Trump had helped facilitate. For Trump, it was a rare face-to-face meeting with another world leader in which he was not driving the conversation.
Macron appeared to be relishing the role of the newly anointed disrupter-in-chief of NATO. But Trudeau tried to downplay the tension.
Although the Canadian prime minister admitted in a news conference that he was talking about Trump in the video, he said his “jaws drop” comment referred only to the surprise announcement that the upcoming Group of 7 summit would be held at Camp David, rather than as Trump had originally proposed at the Trump National Doral golf resort in Miami.
Trudeau added, “I have a very good relationship with President Trump and his team.”
Trump seemed pleased with his own retort. “That was funny when I said that guy was two-faced,” Trump said, in a second hot-mic moment of the two-day gathering — a private exchange with another attendee at a luncheon for countries that had met a military spending bench mark required by NATO.
Later in the day, the mood in a room where Trump was meeting with the Italian prime minister grew palpably tense as the president turned his focus to the Democratic-led impeachment effort back home, calling a report released by the House Intelligence Committee “a joke.”
He said it was a “disgrace” that the hearing was taking place “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.”
After calling Democrats “unpatriotic,” Trump also questioned whether Democrats “loved our country.”
Trump has long bridled at the thought that other world leaders might poke fun at the United States. Part of his 2016 presidential campaign pitch to voters was that his election would change how America was viewed abroad.
“The world is laughing at us,” he said frequently during the campaign, criticizing the leadership of President Barack Obama.
In June 2017, when he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, Trump said: “We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore. And they won’t be. They won’t be.”
But in 2018, laughter broke out at the United Nations General Assembly when Trump claimed that his administration had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
The president insisted at the time that he was not the target, saying, “They weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing with me.”
Trump left NATO with another positive gloss on an embarrassing meeting. “We had a really good day and a good day yesterday,” he said.