At sum­mit, Pres­i­dent Trump lays aside his role as in­ter­na­tional dis­rupter

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY PHILIP RUCKER, ANNE GEARAN AND AN­THONY FAIOLA [email protected]­ [email protected]­ an­[email protected]­ Brady Den­nis in Wash­ing­ton and An­ton Troianovski in Moscow con­trib­uted to this re­port.

BUENOS AIRES — Pres­i­dent Trump man­aged to spend two days in the com­pany of world lead­ers he has long an­tag­o­nized with­out any vis­i­ble erup­tions.

There were no feuds, or at least none pub­licly de­tected, as Air Force One took off from Buenos Aires on Satur­day night. Trump signed on to a state­ment of prin­ci­ples with the other lead­ers at the Group of 20 sum­mit, the kind of doc­u­ment he re­fused to en­dorse at a sum­mit in Canada a few months ear­lier. He made nice with the Eu­ro­pean leader he most reg­u­larly trashes, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel.

And the big­gest di­plo­matic faux pas to oc­cur here did not even in­volve the gaffe-prone Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. It was the au­to­cratic bro-shake be­tween Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and Saudi Ara­bian Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

A pres­i­dent who prides him­self on be­ing the ul­ti­mate dis­rupter on the global stage in­stead played the part of re­luc­tant diplo­mat here in Ar­gentina, at the risk of mak­ing him­self some­thing of a non-fac­tor.

Trump cur­tailed his am­bi­tions by can­cel­ing his meet­ing with Putin and call­ing off a sched­uled news con­fer­ence, leav­ing as his mar­quee event a high-stakes work­ing din­ner to dis­cuss trade Satur­day with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. Af­ter months of harsh rhetoric, threats and in­sults about China, Trump ac­cen­tu­ated only the pos­i­tive as he sat for an Ar­gen­tine steak din­ner with Xi.

Trump agreed to hold off on rais­ing ex­ist­ing tar­iffs on $200 bil­lion in Chi­nese im­ports for 90 days, pend­ing a new round of trade talks later this month, while Xi agreed to des­ig­nate fen­tanyl as a con­trolled sub­stance and for China to pur­chase a sub­stan­tial amount of U.S. agri­cul­tural prod­uct, ac­cord­ing to the White House.

“This was an amaz­ing and pro­duc­tive meet­ing with un­lim­ited pos­si­bil­i­ties for both the United States and China,” Trump said in a Satur­day night state­ment from aboard Air Force One.

The meet­ing with Xi, like Trump’s other tête-à-têtes, was over­shad­owed by news back home — first for­mer Trump lawyer Michael Co­hen’s guilty plea in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and then the death of for­mer pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush.

Trump’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to be on his best be­hav­ior in Buenos Aires was most vis­i­ble when he met with Merkel on Satur­day af­ter­noon. He passed up the op­por­tu­nity to rib her for ar­riv­ing late be­cause her gov­ern­ment air­craft mal­func­tioned; Ger­man en­gi­neer­ing and mil­i­tary readi­ness have been past tar­gets of his. Nor did Trump gloat over Merkel’s de­clin­ing po­lit­i­cal for­tunes; he pre­vi­ously has said the vet­eran leader was los­ing her touch.

In­stead, Trump said Merkel was do­ing “an in­cred­i­ble job” as Ger­many’s leader and was “highly re­spected by every­body, in­clud­ing me.”

Trump’s self-re­straint con­tin­ued as he an­swered a few ques­tions from re­porters. When one asked whether he had any re­grets about his past crit­i­cisms of Bush and his fam­ily, Trump paused for a mo­ment and then de­cided not to en­gage.

“Thank you very much, every­body,” said Trump, who through­out the day show­ered praise on the 41st pres­i­dent and cel­e­brated his life of pub­lic ser­vice.

Trump gave no pub­lic ad­dress at the sum­mit, and much of the work at such gath­er­ings is done be­hind closed doors. The vast ma­jor­ity of his in­ter­ac­tions with his coun­ter­parts was out of view of cam­eras, and it could take days or longer for news to sur­face de­tail­ing his pri­vate en­coun­ters — or any pos­si­ble out­bursts or of­fenses.

For in­stance, af­ter Trump can­celed his sched­uled bi­lat­eral meet­ing with Putin, cit­ing Rus­sia’s mar­itime clash last week with Ukraine, the two men in­ter­acted at a pri­vate din­ner for lead­ers and their spouses in El Teatro Colón, this city’s op­u­lent grand opera house.

Trump, who was pho­tographed sit­ting four seats away from Putin at the long din­ner ta­ble, had “a num­ber of in­for­mal con­ver­sa­tions” at the din­ner with world lead­ers, in­clud­ing Putin, ac­cord­ing to White House press sec­re­tary Sarah San­ders.

Putin said at a news con­fer­ence here that he “briefly” com­mu­ni­cated with Trump, but he did not spec­ify the con­tent of the con­ver­sa­tion, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­fax news agency. Putin called Trump “a man of char­ac­ter” and a “very ex­pe­ri­enced man.”

“It’s a mis­for­tune that we’re not able to have a meet­ing,” Putin said. He added, “I hope that the meet­ing will fi­nally take place when the U.S. side is ready for it.”

Trump made no pub­lic em­brace of Mo­hammed, who was treated as a pariah here be­cause of the bru­tal killing of jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi. Trump was seen briefly con­vers­ing with the Saudi, of­ten known by his ini­tials, MBS, but the White House said they merely “ex­changed pleas­antries.”

A pub­lic tri­umph of Trump’s trip was the cer­e­mo­nial sign­ing Fri­day of a new trade deal with Canada and Mex­ico to re­place the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment.

“The pres­i­dent has been un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally but ap­pro­pri­ately sub­dued,” said James Dob­bins, a for­mer as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state and se­nior fel­low at the Rand Corp. “Nice photo op with his NAFTA 2 part­ners, warm and re­spect­ful farewell to the first Pres­i­dent Bush, cold shoul­der to the two rogue at­ten­dees, Putin and MBS, and pos­i­tive buildup to his meet­ing with Xi. So far, he has nav­i­gated a dif­fi­cult and un­for­tu­nately timed gath­er­ing with­out mishap.”

Trump’s crit­ics ar­gued that he ap­pears to be hemmed in by do­mes­tic pol­i­tics.

“It may be that even this pres­i­dent has to make con­ces­sions to re­al­ity,” said David Ax­el­rod, who was for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s chief strate­gist. “The MBS and Rus­sia sto­ries are not play­ing well for him. The tar­iffs are pun­ish­ing the very parts of the coun­try on which he counts for sup­port.”

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, who only a month ago took Trump to task dur­ing the pres­i­dent’s visit to France by con­demn­ing na­tion­al­ism, appeared to play down any dis­agree­ments here. He touted “com­mon paths” with the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent.

“To­gether with Don­ald Trump, we have reached an agree­ment,” Macron said Satur­day. “The USA has ap­proved a clear text on mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism that com­plies with in­ter­na­tional rules. They’ve ap­proved a clear text on trade that has been dis­cussed at length and is very clear on the re­forms. They’ve ap­proved a com­mon text on en­ergy mat­ters, and this morn­ing Pres­i­dent Trump took the floor in the ple­nary ses­sion to say that even though he did not fol­low the Paris Ac­cords he very much wanted to be in­volved in climate mat­ters.”

The G-20 is a mul­ti­lat­eral or­ga­ni­za­tion, but Trump and some of his ad­vis­ers are hos­tile to the con­cept of group de­ci­sion-mak­ing. So Trump’s as­sent to the joint state­ment of G-20 lead­ers re­flected a com­pro­mise.

The doc­u­ment re­it­er­ates a shared com­mit­ment to a “rules­based in­ter­na­tional or­der” and global trade, but in­cludes a cri­tique of the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion, a body Trump rails against. It also ex­pressly carves out a sep­a­rate U.S. position on climate goals, not­ing that the United States re­it­er­ates its de­ci­sion to with­draw from the Paris climate ac­cord while the other mem­ber na­tions are com­mit­ted to its full im­ple­men­ta­tion.

“For the first time ever, the G-20 rec­og­nized the WTO is cur­rently fall­ing short of meet­ing its ob­jec­tives and that it’s in need of re­form,” a se­nior White House of­fi­cial crowed to re­porters Satur­day.

The of­fi­cial, who briefed re­porters on the con­di­tion of anonymity, added, “Fi­nally, we had a para­graph where we specif­i­cally pre­served and ex­plained our position for why we’re with­draw­ing from the job-killing Paris agree­ment.”

Michael Ger­rard, a pro­fes­sor at Columbia Law School who also di­rects the Sabin Cen­ter for Climate Change Law, said the para­graph is “stick­ing out like a sore thumb, or maybe a fin­ger in the eye.”

“The rest of the world is ad­vanc­ing its un­der­stand­ing of the con­se­quences of climate change, and the ur­gency of find­ing ways to re­duce emis­sions and cope with the in­evitable im­pacts,” Ger­rard added, “while the U.S. pres­i­dent . . . is stuck in anti-sci­en­tific de­nial, earn­ing scorn and con­tempt.”

Such joint state­ments — com­mu­niques, in diplo-speak — are pro forma for in­ter­na­tional gath­er­ings such as the G-20 and the older Group of Seven from which it grew. They can in­volve tense back­room ne­go­ti­a­tions but usu­ally make lit­tle news. Un­til Trump, that is. Af­ter a stormy G-7 in Canada in June, Trump an­grily re­moved his name from the planned joint state­ment. And a NATO sum­mit in July avoided the same fate by pre­cook­ing a bland state­ment be­fore the meet­ing fully be­gan. Trump still man­aged to be the skunk at the party, up­end­ing the gath­er­ing with a protest over de­fense spend­ing com­mit­ments.

Trump’s Ar­gen­tine hosts strained to please him through­out the sum­mit, work­ing to min­i­mize top­ics, such as pro­tec­tion­ism and mi­gra­tion, that could trig­ger Trump’s griev­ances. Ar­gen­tine Pres­i­dent Mauri­cio Macri opted for a gen­tle ap­proach.

Ahead of the sum­mit, the Ar­gen­tine hosts said that “95 per­cent” of the fi­nal com­mu­nique had al­ready been agreed upon, with one of the big­gest stick­ing points be­ing U.S. re­sis­tance to in­clu­sion of the word “pro­tec­tion­ism.” Ul­ti­mately, the word was not in­cluded, mark­ing an about-face for the G-20 na­tions, which have re­peat­edly and specif­i­cally de­cried “pro­tec­tion­ism” in the past.

Thomas Wright, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, said, “The worry was that things could un­ravel, so there was a re­trac­tion of am­bi­tion from the other demo­cratic lead­ers. They are wor­ried about him cre­at­ing a fuss over at­tempts to forge co­op­er­a­tion, which means th­ese sum­mits now are just gath­er­ings of the lead­ers with­out a real agenda. That’s the func­tion of Trump.”


Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and Pres­i­dent Trump shake hands dur­ing their meet­ing at the G-20 sum­mit in Buenos Aires on Sun­day. In the past, Trump has been crit­i­cal of Merkel.

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