Donald Trump’s first trip to Europe as president, back in May, was an unmitigated disaster. He scolded allies, publicly and privately, and shocked his own aides by refusing to affirm NATO’s Article V mutual-defense provision. The best thing that can be said about his return is that at least this time he did voice support for Article V. So give this trip a D rather than the F he earned the first time around.
Why not a higher grade? Because President Trump can’t help being himself, wherever he is. His nutty behavior is bad enough at home; it’s even worse abroad when he is supposed to be representing not just his rabid base of “deplorables” but, rather, the whole country. That is something Trump simply does not know how to do.
Thus, in the course of this trip, he trashed his predecessor, the U.S. intelligence community, and the “fake news” media. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan in 1981 going abroad and attacking Jimmy Carter for not doing more to stand up to Soviet aggression? Or attacking the press for being hostile to him in the 1980 campaign (as they were) and the intelligence community for not predicting the Iranian revolution (as they did not)? It’s unimaginable, yet Trump somehow thinks that it’s appropriate.
Just as he thought it was appropriate to tweet a bizarre attack on former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta right before his meeting with Vladimir Putin. And to give up his seat at the G-20 meeting to his daughter Ivanka, as if he were presiding over a hereditary monarchy like Saudi Arabia. Or to dissent from the consensus of the other 19 nations in favor of the Paris climate accord. If this is “modern-day presidential,” as Trump claims, then please bring back pre-modern presidential — you know, the ancient, long-forgotten standards of decorum that prevailed until January 19.
Trump is not entirely devoid of any knowledge of the expectations that await him. He knew enough, at least, to raise the issue of Russian interference in our election with Putin, realizing he would be pilloried if he did not. There is no agreement about what Trump said, because, being paranoid about “deep state” leaks, he refused to have a note-taker in the room. Both Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed that Trump “accepted” Putin’s assurances that Russia was not behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. A U.S. official anonymously denied this, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson claimed that Trump “pressed President Putin on more than one occasion regarding Russian involvement.”
Trump himself could clear up this disagreement in an instant if he would simply tweet that he did not accept Putin’s duplicitous denials of Russian involvement. Instead his tweet on the subject gave every indication that he had accepted Putin’s position — hardly surprising, when just the day before in Warsaw he had questioned Russian responsibility for this blatant interference in the U.S. election.
Of course, even if one accepts the Tillerson readout, the meeting was a big win for Putin because Trump did not threaten any punishment for Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. Instead, according to Tillerson, “the two presidents, I think rightly, focused on is how do we move forward; how do we move forward from here.” Imagine FDR and Tojo meeting in 1942 and agreeing to move on from that little unpleasantry at Pearl Harbor.
Trump and Putin apparently agreed on a principle of “non-interference in the affairs of other countries,” something that Putin has long been seeking because he is paranoid about the United States aiding the democrats and dissidents who oppose him. Naturally, Putin has no intention of following this principle of “non-interference” when it comes to U.S. politics — now that Trump isn’t retaliating for the 2016 hack-attack, expect more of the same in 2018 and 2020 — but Trump will undoubtedly prevent the U.S. government from helping the embattled Russian opposition.
The final absurdity was Putin and Trump’s discussion of, as Trump tweeted, “forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded.” What’s next — forming a human-rights unit with Bashar al-Assad and a nuclear non-proliferation unit with Kim Jong-un?
Even some of those who were critical of Trump’s cave-in to Putin were complimentary of his speech in Warsaw. There were a few good moments, primarily Trump’s tributes to Polish fortitude in fighting Nazi and Soviet oppression. “For America’s part, we have never given up on freedom and independence as the right and destiny of the Polish people, and we never, ever will,” he said. For a moment he almost sounded Reaganesque. But just as quickly he transitioned to sounding Bannonesque — as in Stephen Bannon, his counselor and former chairman of the far-right website Breitbart.
“Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty,” Trump said. “We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.” Later, he demanded: “Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Coming from another leader, these sentiments might seem unobjectionable. But coming from Trump, with his long history of Mexican- and Muslim-bashing, it’s hard not to hear this as a coded appeal for the kind of ultra-nationalist populism that is Bannon’s bread-and-butter. While the Declaration of Independence (which Trump did not mention two days after the Fourth of July) holds that “all men are created equal,” Trump seems to be insinuating that freedom is only a product of American and European culture, and that it is threatened by hordes of newcomers who supposedly don’t share our values. These are the internal subversives to whom he referred.
This message resonated with Poland’s illiberal Law and Justice Party, which trucked in supporters to hear the president speak and shares Trump’s aversion to “fake” (i.e., critical) news, but it further divided Trump from the majority of America’s European allies. They are committed, just as America once was, to a more expansive vision of multicultural societies bound together by a shared devotion to the rule of law and individual rights.
The United States has long led the way in showing how newcomers of all different backgrounds and ethnicities can be integrated into our democracy. But Trump is walking away from that vision — he did not mention the word “democracy” once in Warsaw and the only time he mentioned an election was when he bragged about all of the Polish-American votes he won in 2016. Trump seems to think that the only thing that unites Poland and America is “bonds of culture, faith, and tradition,” but Russians could just as plausibly claim to share those bonds as well.
Indeed, there is every reason to suspect that Trump himself, in spite of a few mildly critical remarks about Russia’s “destabilizing activities” (a nice way to describe the invasion of Ukraine, the subversion of the U.S. election, and the war crimes in Syria), shares this rosy view of Russian-American affinity peddled by Putin. As Rex Tillerson said, “there was a very clear positive chemistry” between the two men, so much so that they refused to break up their tête-à-tête even when it ran long over-schedule. There was no such warmth evident in Trump’s meetings with European leaders such as Angela Merkel. After his return home, Trump tweeted, “Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!” No mention of working constructively with Germany or France.
In the end, Trump’s second trip to Europe confirms the message of the first one: For the first time ever, the United States has a president who is more sympathetic to our enemies in Russia than to our friends in Europe.