Trump re­mains an un­pre­dictable force

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

On US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s sec­ond trip abroad, there were fewer of the bull-in-adiplo­matic-china-shop mo­ments that had so­lid­i­fied Euro­pean lead­ers’ skep­ti­cism dur­ing his maiden over­seas tour. Less pub­lic be­rat­ing of al­lies, no push­ing to the front of photo op­por­tu­ni­ties. But Trump still de­parted Europe on Satur­day in the same po­si­tion as he started: an un­pre­dictable force on the world stage and an out­lier among long­time Amer­i­can part­ners.

For the pres­i­dent’s back­ers, his pos­ture is the ful­fill­ment of his cam­paign prom­ise to bring more opaque­ness to Amer­i­can for­eign policy and chal­lenge long-stand­ing global agree­ments, even with the na­tion’s clos­est al­lies. But his de­trac­tors say he keeps send­ing the world dan­ger­ously mixed mes­sages. “Our part­ners and our al­lies are all look­ing for mean­ing and in­ten­tion in those words and will read into it what they want to, which may or may not be what Trump meant,” said Laura Rosen­berger, a for­mer for­eign policy ad­viser to Hil­lary Clin­ton and a se­nior fel­low with the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund.

Trump’s mes­sage on Rus­sia re­mains the most con­vo­luted, de­spite his ad­vis­ers’ ef­forts to put to rest ques­tions about his views on Moscow’s elec­tion med­dling. The pres­i­dent re­fused to pub­licly give the kind of con­dem­na­tion that his staff said he de­liv­ered to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin dur­ing a pri­vate meet­ing Fri­day. He let a chal­lenge from Putin, who said Trump ac­cepted his de­nial of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in the 2016 elec­tion, go largely unan­swered, tweet­ing Sun­day morn­ing that he’d “al­ready given my opin­ion” on the mat­ter.

Trump’s pos­ture to­ward Putin has left al­lies both baf­fled and anx­ious, par­tic­u­larly against the back­drop of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions into whether his cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia dur­ing last year’s elec­tion. But in­creas­ingly, it’s Trump’s po­si­tions on cli­mate and trade that have cat­a­pulted to the top of their list of con­cerns. The di­vide over cli­mate was par­tic­u­larly glar­ing as the Group of 20 sum­mit in Hamburg, Ger­many, drew to a close. The US was the only mem­ber coun­try that did not sign a state­ment reaf­firm­ing the al­liance’s sup­port for in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to fight global warm­ing. The state­ment called the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, which Trump with­drew from last month, an “ir­re­versible” global agree­ment.

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel said Trump’s re­fusal to sign on to the state­ment was “re­gret­table.” French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, who will host Trump on a quick trip to Paris this week de­clared: “There are ma­jor dif­fer­ences, grow­ing dif­fer­ences be­tween ma­jor pow­ers. There is the emer­gence of au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes and even within the West­ern world there are ma­jor di­vi­sions, un­cer­tain­ties, in­sta­bil­i­ties, that didn’t ex­ist just a few short years ago.”

But Trump and his al­lies ap­pear to rel­ish his volatil­ity and iso­la­tion. Nile Gar­diner, a for­eign policy an­a­lyst for the conservative Her­itage Foun­da­tion, which has close ties to the Trump White House, praised the pres­i­dent as “the most outspoken and un­con­ven­tional US pres­i­dent of modern time” and said he is still man­ag­ing to ar­tic­u­late a “co­her­ent doc­trine and vi­sion.”

Con­ser­va­tives in the US were in­deed buoyed by Trump’s speech in War­saw, Poland, which marked per­haps his most com­pre­hen­sive ar­tic­u­la­tion of how he views Amer­ica’s role in the world. He praised Pol­ish re­silience and called upon West­ern na­tions to jointly com­bat forces that threaten “to erase the bonds of cul­ture, faith and tra­di­tion that make us who we are”. The conservative ed­i­to­rial page at The Wall Street Jour­nal called the ad­dress “Trump’s defin­ing speech”.

Un­even mes­sage

Yet even as his War­saw speech por­trayed the world in stark terms, he of­fered an un­even mes­sage on Rus­sia. In a news con­fer­ence in Poland, the pres­i­dent ac­knowl­edged that Rus­sia had in­ter­fered in the 2016 elec­tion, but he re­peated his as­ser­tion that “other coun­tries” may have done the same, a ref­er­ence that ap­peared to let Putin off the hook. Hours be­fore his meet­ing with Putin, he tweeted that “every­one” at the G-20 was talk­ing about why John Podesta, a top ad­viser to Clin­ton, had “re­fused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Dis­grace­ful!” In­tel­li­gence agen­cies con­cluded that both the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and Podesta’s emails were hacked by Rus­sians last year.

Trump has ar­gued that Democrats are hyp­ing Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in order to cre­ate an ex­cuse for Clin­ton’s loss. His tweet about Podesta prompted the for­mer top White House aide, who was driv­ing with his wife on a cross-coun­try trip, to re­spond that the pres­i­dent was a “whack job”. “Dude, get your head in the game. You’re rep­re­sent­ing the US at the G20,” Podesta wrote on Twit­ter.

Trump’s ad­vis­ers hoped to turn the page on the mat­ter fol­low­ing the pres­i­dent’s first meet­ing with Putin. US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, the only US of­fi­cial who joined Trump in the meet­ing, said the pres­i­dent opened the dis­cus­sion by “rais­ing the con­cerns of the Amer­i­can peo­ple” on Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the elec­tion, de­scrib­ing it as a “very ro­bust and lengthy ex­change”. Putin’s take­away was dif­fer­ent. He told re­porters Satur­day that he be­lieved Trump ac­cepted his de­nials of Rus­sian med­dling, but said it was best to ask the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent him­self. White House aides didn’t dis­pute the ac­count. And the Sun­day morn­ing flurry of tweets from Trump did lit­tle to clar­ify.

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