Thursday 17 January 2019

Trump's visit to Europe has allies on toes

Ahead of this week's Nato and Putin summits, Trump's chaotic diplomacy is worrying the US's friends, writes Carol D Leonnig

Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Carol D Leonnig

US president Donald Trump lands in Europe this week amid fears he will blow up a key summit focused on Europe's defence and then offer concessions to Nato's main adversary in Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The allies' worries and Moscow hopes are rooted in Trump's combative approach to foreign policy. In recent days, Trump has told senior aides that he wants to slash US spending on Europe's defence if the allies are unwilling to contribute more to Nato, a senior administration official said.


The private comments reflect a president who has shown little interest in the long history that underpins America's alliances or the collective foreign policy expertise of the US government, according to current and former US and European officials.

Instead, he relies on his instincts and his ability to forge a personal bond with world leaders. White House officials tout the president's willingness to question long-held assumptions and challenge America's allies, who have underspent on security for decades, to contribute more to their own defence.

But his approach has also heartened autocrats, such as Putin, who see in Trump someone willing to forgive past sins in pursuit of a deal, the officials said. And it has alarmed allies and some of Trump's closest aides, who are concerned he may yield on issues such as Russia's annexation of the Crimea and its continuing destabilisation of Ukraine.

Even as his administration has imposed tough sanctions on Moscow and expelled Russian diplomats, Trump has avoided criticising Putin. He will meet Putin in Helsinki on July 16.

"The president thinks he can be friends with Putin," former national security adviser HR McMaster complained during his time in the White House, according to US officials. "I don't know why, or why he would want to be."

Trump's approach also has been corrosive to relations with allies who increasingly believe that Trump - on trade, Nato and diplomacy - is undercutting the post-World War II order in pursuit of short-term (and likely illusory) wins.

During an April visit by French president Emmanuel Macron to the White House, a frustrated Trump was sharply critical of both British prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel, US and European officials said. Asked about his comments, the president in a statement to The Washington Post said that "immigration is destroying Europe as we know it and it is very sad to be witness to what is happening."

European Council president Donald Tusk has derided Trump's "capricious assertiveness" and warned that EU countries need to prepare for "worst case scenarios".

Trump, for his part, frequently tells European leaders how much he dislikes the European Union - and how it is "worse than China".

In the days leading up to the summit, the president and his team have sent mixed messages. The US ambassador to Nato, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, focused on the positive, touting the biggest increases in defence spending by the allies since the end of the Cold War. US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman pledged that Trump would "continue to hold Russia accountable for its malign activity".

Trump, by contrast, has highlighted grievances. "I'm going to tell Nato - you got to start paying your bills," he said at a rally last week in Montana. "They kill us on trade. They kill us on other things... and on top of that they kill us with Nato."

And he defended Putin, calling him "fine" at the event.

The core of Trump's freewheeling approach has been in place since his earliest days in the White House. Shortly after he took office, Trump began passing out his personal mobile phone number to a handful of foreign leaders, and in April 2017 White House aides were startled when officials in Canada issued a standard summary of a conversation between prime minister Justin Trudeau and Trump. In it, Trudeau complained of "unfair duties" and "baseless" claims about trade by Trump administration officials.

No one at the White House was aware the call had taken place. "We had no idea what happened," a senior US official said.

Typically such calls, even with close allies, are choreographed affairs. Regional experts prepare talking points covering the wide array of issues that might be raised. The national security adviser will brief the president ahead of the call and remain by his side to offer advice. After the call, a transcript is distributed to key aides, who will issue a public read-out. In this instance, US officials had to rely on Trump's memory. A terse public read-out described "a very amicable call".

After the call, White House aides urged Trump to route all conversations with foreign leaders through the Situation Room, as required under federal records law, the senior official said.

Trump's lack of preparation has added a further level of unpredictability to his interactions with foreign leaders, the officials said. The president rarely reads his nightly briefing book, which focuses on issues likely to come up in meetings, a second senior US official said. To slim down Trump's workload, aides have sometimes put the most critical information in a red folder, the official said.

In November and again in March, Trump invited Putin to the White House for a summit against the advice of aides, who argued that the chances of progress on substantive issues was slim.

For Trump, the meeting was the point. In an interview with Fox News last month, Trump speculated that he and Putin could potentially thrash out solutions to Syria and Ukraine over dinner.

"I could say: 'Would you do me a favour? Would you get out of Syria'," Trump said. "'Would you do me a favour? Would you get out Ukraine'." Some White House officials worry that Putin, who has held several calls with Trump, plays on the president's inexperience and lack of detailed knowledge about issues while stoking Trump's grievances.

The Russian president complains to Trump about "fake news" and laments that the US foreign policy establishment - the "deep state" in Putin's words - is conspiring against them, the first senior US official said.

"It's not us," Putin has told Trump, the official summarised. "It's the subordinates fighting against our friendship."

In conversations with Trudeau, May and Merkel, Trump is sometimes assertive, brash and even bullying on issues he feels strongly about, such as trade, according to senior US officials. He drives the conversation and isn't shy about cutting off the allies mid-sentence to make his point, the officials said.

With Putin, Trump takes a more conciliatory approach, often treating the Russian leader as a confidante.

"So what do you think I should do about North Korea?" he asked Putin in their November 2017 telephone call, according to US officials. Some of those officials saw the request for advice as naive, a sign that Trump believes the two countries are partners in the effort to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. Other officials described Trump's query as a savvy effort to flatter and win over the Russian leader whose country borders North Korea and has long been involved in diplomacy over its nuclear programme.

A similar dynamic has played out in Syria where Putin has offered to cooperate with the US military on counter-terrorism and help Trump realise his goal of an American withdrawal.

Trump's more hawkish current and former advisers, including McMaster, disparaged Putin's offer as a cynical ploy, and maintain that Russia's primary goal is to prop up the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and, more broadly, undercut US influence in the Middle East.

The Pentagon also views Russia's proposal with similar scepticism, US officials said.

Ahead of the Nato summit, European officials have huddled to discuss how to avoid a repeat of the G7 meeting last month, in which Trump arrived late, left early and refused to sign a customary joint statement with the other leaders.

Guiding nearly all of Trump's interactions with world leaders is his belief that his ability to win over, charm and cajole foreign leaders is more important than policy detail or the advancement of strategic goals. Often, the calls can be discursive and confounding. In conversations with the British prime minister he has boasted about his properties in the UK, asked her about his Cabinet officials' performance and sometimes castigated her for being too "politically correct", US and British officials said.

Trump focused part of a meeting earlier this year with the Swedes, who are important interlocutors on North Korea, on complaints about the trade deficit, startling the visiting prime minister; the United States does not have a big trade deficit with Sweden relative to other European countries.

On one point, Trump has been consistent: he rarely ends a call with a head of state without extending an invite to the White House. "Next time you're in Washington, stop by for lunch at the White House," he often says, according to US officials. He has made the offer when his advisers urged him not to. Such was the case with Putin and Michel Temer, the president of Brazil, who was weighed down by corruption allegations and deeply unpopular when Trump spoke to him last autumn.

Before the call, aides had urged him not to invite the Brazilian leader to the White House. Trump did it anyway. White House aides spent the next several weeks dodging calls from the Brazilian ambassador trying to set up the meeting.

© Washington Post

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