Trump’s 'Home Run' Trip Leaves White House Happy, Europe Mixed

  • Absense of caustic tweets or major gaffes in nine days abroad
  • Leaders, including Germany’s Merkel, signal their frustration

President Donald Trump Made G-7 Debut

The world just got its first close-up look at Donald Trump. It didn’t always like what it saw.

There he was pushing aside Montenegro’s prime minister to be front-and-center for a NATO photo-op. Here he was beaming giddily next to a stern-faced pope. On the same day, his wife Melania swatted away his attempt to hold hands.

In Saudi Arabia, one senior White House official marveled at the lack of protesters, perhaps not realizing Saudi bans them. In Israel, after an historic direct flight from Riyadh, Trump raised eyebrows with the comment, “we just got back from the Middle East.” In Brussels, Trump walked into the gleaming new NATO headquarters -- and, with a real-estate mogul’s eye, made clear he wondered if they’d overpaid.

“Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes. Man!” Trump said to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when they met in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, a friendly nod to a Mideast strongman who the U.S. largely snubbed during the Obama administration. El-Sisi visited the White House within three months of Trump taking office.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Trump join dancers with swords at Murabba Palace.

Source: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

By the time he got to Sicily, Trump probably wished he were back at the glittering sword-dance ceremony in the Middle East, where various parties -- Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis -- need the U.S. for trade, peace and protection.

NATO Skeptic

Europe, on the other hand, is prepared to go on without him. After the presidential election, the Continent’s leaders always figured they’d be going it alone without the Brexit-loving, free trade-bashing, NATO skeptic. Nothing that happened on this trip should fundamentally change that view. The trans-Atlantic alliance stands, but with people on both sides in a state of sober, not heartfelt, embrace.

Trump himself called the trip a “home run,” and aides agreed, delighted over the lack of major gaffes and their ability to keep Trump largely on script and far away from reporters. Even Trump’s Twitter account was uncharacteristically free of top-of-mind rants -- despite the storm that awaits his return the U.S., with son-in-law Jared Kushner getting pulled deeper into the FBI’s Russia probe.

As for some of the rough edges, White House officials shrugged, that was just Trump being Trump. It’s not as though stepping past the Montenegrin would exactly hurt his image with
his political base, particularly after a Republican House candidate in Montana was charged with allegedly body-slamming a reporter and winning an election the next day. (Even Montenegro’s Dusko Markovic said the American president deserved to be in the front row.)

Merkel’s Disdain

If Europeans thought a more diplomatic president would show up in this most diplomatic of settings, they obviously hadn’t paid attention to Trump’s first months in office, when American voters found out that at age 70, he is who he is.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t annoyed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel could barely contain her disdain for the American outlier on the Paris climate agreement.

“The whole discussion about climate has been difficult, or rather very unsatisfactory,” Merkel told reporters after the summit. “Here we have the situation that six members, or even seven if you want to add the EU, stand against one.”

The one, of course, being Trump.

He seemed unbothered and unrushed, though, tweeting that he’d make a decision on Paris stay-or-go next week. Trump seemed to be groping toward a way to stay in the accord, perhaps by making country goals non-binding as a way to lessen the impact he sees the climate deal having on the U.S. economy.

‘We Will Win’

In Trump’s telling of the trip, recounted Saturday to a friendly crowd of U.S. troops in Sicily, he made strong, new friends around the world and united global leaders against terrorism with a new sense of resolve following the May 22 bombing attack in Manchester. “We will win,” he declared.

Trump also took what in his mind were important steps toward Middle East peace -- by getting Israel and the Saudis to unite behind their shared enmity toward Iran, even if his
gestures were lacking details in a region where the details are all that matters. In Europe, he talked tough on NATO and trade, but won no converts to his side.

Some were more disappointed by what Trump didn’t say than what he did.

Trump visits the Western Wall on May 22.

Photographer: Evan Vucci/AP

In Israel he didn’t mention the two-state solution that would create a Palestinian nation, or moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, remaining silent on a long-standing campaign pledge.

Trump reportedly worked on his big speech to NATO for several days, then didn’t say the words “Article 5,” thereby refusing to put to rest fears his administration might not stand by the mutual defense pledge.

Epic Handshake

Meanwhile, the Europeans leaders, even ones who have already visited the White House, were clearly sizing him up. British Prime Minster Theresa May lectured Trump on intelligence leaks about Manchester -- although the “special relationship” warmed once more when May faulted the FBI, Trump’s own tormentor on Russia.

Trump shakes hands with Macron on May 25

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron squeezed Trump’s hand so hard that the American’s knuckles turned white, and spoke only French when the two chatted before the cameras. (Macron switched to English for his remarks with May.)

Merkel, Europe’s most influential leader, was the least amused by Trump. She said, in effect, that NATO will join the anti-Islamic State coalition as Trump requested, but it won’t mean committing a single extra soldier. Merkel also brushed off Trump’s call for a quicker increase in defense spending.

Then there were the small dramas within the drama. One of the few times Trump took a reporter’s question, it didn’t help. Trump offered a defense of his conduct in a meeting where he shared secret intelligence with Russian diplomats -- and seemed to out Israel as the source of the information, something that had been reported only through inference until then. “So you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word ‘Israel,’ ” Trump said.

Vatican Visit

US First Lady Melania Trump steps out of a car as she arrives at Chierici Palace on May 26.

Photographer: Domenico Stinellis/AP

In one of the trip’s more moving moments, Melania Trump related having read a book to a sick child at a hospital in Rome who needed a heart transplant -- and the boy found out hours later that a new organ had come through for him. She and Trump even held hands on their way out of Italy, as they boarded Air Force One. Still, it didn’t help the first lady’s image when reports circulated that the Dolce & Gabbana jacket she wore on Friday cost $51,000, not much less than the U.S. median household income.

Another stumble came as White House press secretary Sean Spicer, a practicing Catholic, was noticeably absent from the entourage Trump assembled to visit the Vatican. Although staff cast it as a planning mix-up, it was interpreted by some White House watchers as a slight against Spicer, who has for months been beating off rumors that he’s on the edge of being fired.

All the while, the news from home was never far behind. In the closing days of the trip, it was revealed that Kushner had considered setting up a secret backchannel to Russia. On Friday in Sicily, one didn’t need to know Italian to understand the context of Italian TV news stories that repeated “Jared Kushner” and “FBI” over and over.

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