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France tries to orchestrate a no-drama G-7 summit, but Trump is the X factor

President Trump had lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron during the Group of Seven summit on Aug. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

Like an annual holiday gathering where the main goal is to get through the day without a family explosion, one of France’s main objectives as host of this weekend’s Group of Seven summit is to minimize the chances that President Trump will blow it up.

Subjects on which to tread lightly include some of the biggest problems the world’s major economies are facing — trade, the system of international rules that has ordered the democratic world for decades and climate change, according to U.S. and other G-7 officials.

Already, Trump has shaken up the schedule, calling at the last minute for a special meeting Sunday morning to discuss the global economy. Senior administration officials said he will contrast U.S. growth with Europe’s economic doldrums and press his pro-jobs and “fair” trade messages.

President Trump on Aug. 21 said Denmark was “not nice” after the country released a statement declining to sell Greenland to the U.S. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump planned to “frankly” discuss sticking points among G-7 nations including trade, a digital services tax and NATO spending obligations, the officials told reporters in a Thursday briefing.

It is unclear how receptive the others will be to whatever thoughts Trump might offer as to how they should shift their own economic approaches. Many world leaders blame Trump’s trade war with China and his threats against Europe and Japan for a major contraction in investment and spending, and are frustrated with what they see as attempts to use weaknesses elsewhere to demand changes he thinks will benefit U.S. companies.

Trump’s refusal to agree to a joint view of the climate threat and an agenda to confront it roiled the first two G-7 meetings he attended, in Italy in 2017 and in Canada last year.

Trump’s week: A snub, a rollback, a divisive comment — and much confusion

France hopes to largely sidestep that issue, relegating substantive discussion on the environment to meetings on Monday that will include invited non-G-7 leaders from Africa and elsewhere.

Unless there is unexpected harmony among the G-7 leaders, there will be no final communique. “We’re not going to focus on a communique if it’s not going to work,” said one European official.

Instead, France is tentatively planning to issue statements by leaders on separate issues and concentrate on seeking consensus on front-burner crises such as Hong Kong, Libya, Syria and terrorism. There will be an effort, with little hope of success, to find a middle ground between Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran, and Europe’s desire to preserve the Iran nuclear deal.

“When countries like Denmark are in the firing line, you just try to get through the summit without any damage,” said one G-7 diplomat, referring to Trump’s cancellation this week of a planned trip there after the Danish government rejected his interest in a U.S. purchase of Greenland.

“Every one of these, you just hope that it ends without any problem. It just gets harder and harder,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Trump attacks Danish prime minister for her ‘nasty’ comments on proposed Greenland sale

The Europeans “are increasingly separating themselves from the U.S.” as they struggle to deal with Trump’s unconventional approach to diplomacy, said Heather Conley, the director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If that’s formulating a six-plus-one, they will do that. If that is looking to other, more-flexible calibrations to get their interests done, they will do that,” she said.

In Canada last year, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went back and forth on whether a joint communique was possible, and prepared several alternatives, according to Peter M. Boehm, the senior Canadian diplomat who served as Trudeau’s “sherpa” for the gathering.

Trump was persuaded to sign a lengthy communique only after the United States was given its own climate paragraph, separate from what the others endorsed. But after leaving the meeting early, Trump withdrew his signature from the entire document, via a tweet sent from Air Force One, in a huff over a perceived slight from Trudeau.

He later told aides that he thought the Canada summit was a waste of time — especially a lengthy discussion about plastic pollution in the oceans, and proposed support for a beach cleanup initiative.

Trump leaves Washington on Friday night for the summit in Biarritz, on the Bay of Biscay near the Spanish border, and the leaders first meet formally at a Saturday night dinner. The gathering, including Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, France and the United States, is the 45th since the group was formed in 1975. Russia joined in 1998, and it was the Group of Eight for 14 years until the Russians were kicked out after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Why Russia’s relationship with the G-7 collapsed

Hosting duties are rotated among the members, and next year the United States will be in charge of setting the agenda. While its core interest remains the global economy, the group has evolved over the years to discuss all manner of international issues of concern to a membership with shared values. Its small size is designed for informality.

“What the leaders really like is the fact they can have an unscripted, fairly freewheeling discussion,” Boehm said. “They can feel free to interrupt each other and have a dialogue.”

In their plenary meetings, only the leaders are at the table, accompanied by their individual sherpas — in Trump’s case, Kelly Ann Shaw, deputy director of the National Economic Counsel and former National Security Council senior director for international trade, investment and development.

A senior administration official said Trump wants to brag about the U.S. economy and is uninterested in the many other issues that concern the G-7. During Thursday’s news briefing, however, other officials stressed that Trump was seeking to refocus the summit on the purely economic issues it was founded to address.

Trump has scheduled separate, bilateral sessions with all of the member leaders, except for Italy, whose right-wing government collapsed this week. He will also meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be attending the expanded group meetings on Monday, along with counterparts from Egypt, Rwanda, South Africa, Burkino Faso, Senegal, Australia and Chile.

The president has been briefed for this year’s gathering by national security adviser John Bolton and economic adviser Larry Kudlow.

As French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to head off conflict, he sent his chief diplomatic adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, to consult with the White House last week, and spoke to Trump by telephone Tuesday.

John Kirton, director of the G7 Research Group at the University of Toronto, said he was “somewhat optimistic” that Macron could navigate dealing with an unpredictable U.S. president and perhaps even find a way to accommodate Trump on climate change.

“Most people are serious enough to know that if you want to waste all your time and energy lecturing the president, ‘Donald, say you were wrong’ . . . then we all fry and die,” Kirton said.

Others have far lower expectations. Trump has complained repeatedly to senior aides about having to attend, White House officials said, and sees his planned meeting with Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson — considered a potential ally on the world stage — as the only bright spot.

Another G-7 diplomat, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, observed that Trump likes to divide the member countries with spitballs such as his recent suggestion that Russia be readmitted, despite its refusal to reverse its annexation of Crimea. Trump made the same suggestion just before the Canada summit.

“You have to plan going into the summit that he is going to try to divide and conquer,” the second diplomat said.

Johnson has been having his own problems and may not want to be cast as a fellow disrupter. With Britain in an uproar over Brexit and his majority down to one parliamentary seat, Johnson spent much of this week as a semi-supplicant in Europe visiting Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to smooth the path for Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union.

The other G-7 members have their own domestic problems. Germany, after riding high for years under Merkel, is facing an economic downturn. Macron’s popularity has tanked amid the Yellow Vest labor protests across the country. Scandals threaten to derail Trudeau’s reelection bid this fall.

What Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last spring called his “unshakable bond” with Trump has been significantly shaken by threats to trade and the U.S. military presence in Japan, although Trump hopes to announce a new trade deal with Japan at the summit. Italy’s Giuseppe Conte, the man Trump hailed last year as “my new friend,” resigned Tuesday.

Toluse Olorunnipa, Anne Gearan and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.