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David Usborne: A trip marked by anxiety
May 21, 2017
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He’s all yours. Donald Trump has crossed the ocean and here on the eastern seaboard of the US we have nine whole days to rearrange our nerve endings. It would be nice to imagine that Twitter has limited range, like a North Korean missile, and our respite from him would be total.

Those Americans who still adore this president — and their numbers have barely dwindled — will be wishing him well on his voyage, even if global affairs don’t really register on their radar.

As for his detractors, the temptation is to pray for catastrophe, a sort of Hulot’s Holiday with Trump as Tati causing maximum offence and triggering general disarray and mishap wherever he goes.

The potential for things going awry are considerable, of course. One of the advertised highlights of the trip, his first overseas as president, is his speech on Islam with some 50 Muslim world leaders in attendance.

What could possibly go wrong? This is the American president who, as candidate, proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States; he is still battling with the courts at home to have a watered down version of that plan implemented.

Trump has already demonstrated his capacity for diplomatic gaffes, from repeatedly mispronouncing the name of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last week to letting slip highly sensitive intelligence, shared with the US by Israel, to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Both happened in the White House. Who knows what sins he might commit on the road, especially if crankiness and exhaustion set in? Trump is a big-time homebody who reportedly asked aides before setting off if they could find a way to cut the number of days away from nine to five.

Nor will he have the advantage that Barack Obama had on his first trans-Atlantic trip eight years ago; he flew into a giant welcome. I felt it too because I was among the reporters with him.

In London, Strasbourg and Prague it was the same story: he was the darling of the Western world, or most of it. That allowed him to deliver that speech in the Czech Republic about ridding the world of nuclear weapons without being called out as a naive dreamer, even if he was.

Outside of the United States, Trump is the darling of almost no-one right now, except perhaps Farage, Wilder and Le Pen. After Saudi Arabia and Israel, he will be greeted at the Vatican by Pope Francis who has already noted their disagreements on issues. Count among them human rights, immigration and climate change.

“I will tell him what I think, he will tell me what he thinks, but I never wanted to judge someone before I listen to the person first,” the Pope said.

In Brussels, his hosts will query his past hostility to Nato and his glee over Brexit. In Sicily, the other G7 leaders will poke him over free trade and his threat to take the United States out of the Paris climate accord.

Yet, even those who will be naturally inclined to disdain Trump and the populist instincts that carried him to the White House — we might include among them Emmanuel Macron who will have a private lunch with him — will know to keep their feelings in check, and not just because he is a man who holds grudges and seeks revenge when he senses disrespect.

Each one of the allies he is set to meet, in the Middle East and Europe, will have good reasons not just to avoid irking Trump but actually to wish him well. There has been relief, certainly, that on a number of fronts, the more extreme, ‘America-First’ version of the president has been moderated by political and international realities.

It’s been a while since he called Nato obsolete, his protectionist side has found less public expression and there is some hope that on climate change he will reverse his initial instinct to walk away from the Paris deal. And at least he is travelling to them first and not Vladimir Putin. The Don-Vlad show has hit some problems.

The allies can be partly reassured also that while there still remain gigantic holes in Washington’s diplomatic team, including at the expert level in the State Department, the core National Security machinery is in place and, by most accounts, is more or less competent with H R McMaster and James Mattis, respectively the National Security Adviser and Secretary of Defence, as its twin heads. (Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, has earned a different reputation. A “nothingburger” is how one Republican aide described him to me recently.)

Yet, the anxiety that set in from the moment Trump was first elected has hardly abated. It lingered first because of sheer uncertainty about the president’s true intentions regarding Nato and how soft he would go on Putin.

The Baltic states, in particular, wondered if America was any longer interested in blocking further Russian land-grabs. They still wonder as do the western Balkans. They don’t know to whom in Washington they should even talk, sometimes looking to figures like Senator John McCain for reassurance that America is still the superpower and force for stability and democracy they have come to count on.

Almost worse is what they are seeing now: a White House caught in a vortex of scandal and investigation. All they hear is ‘Watergate,’ especially now a special counsel is in place. And the headlines won’t stop just because Trump has left town. As McCain said while receiving an award from fellow Republicans in Washington last week, this whole fandango has taken on a “centipede” quality, with new shoes dropping on an almost daily basis.

This would sap the ability of any White House to focus on almost anything else, including pressing international affairs.

“That’s what’s kind of sad about this,” McCain went on. “You have such a strong national security team in this most dangerous of times, and yet they are not able to function because everything seems to be siphoned into this whole issue of Russia.” The result is a vacuum of world leadership that foes of America and its allies will be all to happy to exploit. 

For these reasons, every one of Trump’s hosts share with his own handlers one overarching mission: ensure that nothing happens to make him look even weaker.

Save him from stumbles, resist easy jibes at his expense and keep him out of settings that might end in tears. (No town hall meetings like the one Obama had with hundreds of politically engaged students in Strasbourg.) They need this trip to be a success for Trump almost as badly as he does.

The Independent

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