Post-Summit Analysis: During trip likely to cheer his base and frustrate critics, the president focused on domestic concerns and gravitated toward non-democratic states.
Donald Trump was returning to his comfort zone – home – on Saturday night having finished a second foreign trip on which domestic concerns took priority over building bridges with a skeptical international community.
The US president committed no significant gaffes but Trump seemed so out of step with the rest of the world that it was a case of the “G1” versus the “G19”, against a backdrop of violent anti-capitalist protests in Hamburg, Germany.
This stark division will delight his populist base, who share his contempt for trade agreements and the Paris climate deal and dismay his critics. In short, Trump was Trump and the exercise did little to move the needle one way or another.
How the trip would play at home was evidently never far from the president’s mind. Unlike during his first foreign adventure in the Middle East and Europe, this time he was active on Twitter, and his most bizarre tweet read: “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!”
As well as stretching credulity, this provoked a fiery response from Podesta, the former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman: “Get a grip man, the Russians committed a crime when they stole my emails to help get you elected President.”
Trump also managed to continue his war on the media from afar. During a press conference he railed against CNN and, before his much-anticipated meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, destined to overshadow the summit, he tweeted: “I will represent our country well and fight for its interests! Fake News Media will never cover me accurately but who cares! We will #MAGA [make America great again]!”
Then, as reporters were ushered from the room, the Russian president quipped: “These are the ones who insulted you?” Trump replied: “These are the ones,” seemingly not knowing or not caring that journalists who cross Putin can end up dead.
And in a parting shot, Trump replied to a tweet from the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who denied media reports that his wife had failed to shake hands with the US president, as video evidence seemed to suggest, summoning the spirit of Trump by tweeting: “Let’s FIGHT FAKE NEWS.”
The US president wrote in response: “We will fight the #FakeNews with you!”
The episodes implied that Trump’s gut instinct and deepest enthusiasm is to side with the socially conservative, Eurosceptic and nationalist Duda and the authoritarian, illiberal Putin on issues such as “fake news” rather than with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on crises such as climate change.
This fits a pattern in which he seems to gravitate toward non-democratic states such as China, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia while showing rather less affection for members of the EU.
The prime example remains Putin, who appeared to confirm fears that he would run rings around his frenemy, a diplomatic novice. Perhaps again mindful of his domestic audience, Trump felt compelled to bring up Russia’s meddling in last year’s US presidential election.
But just how hard Trump pushed the issue remains disputed, and it is a sign of the times that even Americans are not sure whether to take the word of a former KGB spymaster over their own commander-in-chief. Even by the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s own account, the two sides seemed to agree to disagree and to “move on”, meaning that Moscow will get off scot-free for having pulled off an audacious political attack.
Trump described it as a “tremendous” meeting that lasted two hours and 16 minutes and struck a deal for a partial ceasefire in Syria, due to begin on Sunday, but there have been many false dawns there in the past. Democratic Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called the meeting with Putin “the lowest moment of all” and an “embarrassment to our country and our ideals”.
As for the highest moment, that, in the eyes of the White House, came before the G20 got started. In a speech in Warsaw, Poland, the president was greeted by crowds – bused in from rural areas, an old trick in authoritarian regimes – chanting his name and even waving a Confederate battle flag. He appeared much more comfortable in this atmosphere than with the lukewarm handshakes of elected leaders.
The Trump script went from “America first” to “civilization first”, rechanneling the fire and brimstone of his inaugural address into a promise that “the West will never, ever be broken”. Again, the response broke down along predictable partisan lines. The conservative Wall Street Journal hailed it as “Trump’s Defining Speech”, whereas Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart’s review was headlined “Trump’s white-nationalist dog whistles in Warsaw”.
It marked an improvement, of sorts, on the previous week’s tweets referring to TV host Mika Brzezinski’s bleeding face. But Trump was still some way off looking and sounding like a global statesman and the final statement of the G20 leaders spelled out America’s utter isolation. Trump seems likely to breathe a sigh of relief when he gets back to the White House and maybe paraphrase Sunset Boulevard, one of his favorite movies: “I am big. It’s the world that got small.”
– David Smith I The Guardian