Was it a “shove?” Or more of a “brush” or “jostle.” Or perhaps just a friendly slap on the arm, a casual guy-greeting.
In fact, “shove” was probably the most common word used to describe the fleeting, at best awkward interaction between Trump, the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, and Dusko Markovic, the leader of Montenegro, a small Balkan nation of 600,000 attending its first summit as a NATO member after a nine-year accession process.
It occurred as NATO leaders strolled toward a group photo in Brussels.
According to the Merriam-Webster definition, “shove” is on target: “to push along” or to “push or put in a rough, careless, or hasty manner.”
Let’s break it down.
A slow-motion viewing of the video indicates no words spoken by Trump as he approaches the group from behind. No “Excuse me” or “Pardon me.”
Trump reaches out his right arm, grabs Markovic’s right shoulder and pushes him aside. Markovic looks surprised. Trump doesn’t acknowledge his existence as he moves past him. It’s as if Markovic isn’t there.
Markovic abruptly looks back at Trump but gets no eye contact from Trump in return.
Then he pats Trump on the back, or perhaps the arm, displaying a slight grin as Trump, at the front of the group, stands tall and adjusts his suit coat. Trump begins conversing with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite as Markovic looks on from behind.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer later told reporters that spots for the “family photo” for which the leaders were preparing were predetermined, as is usually the case — implying that Trump was not trying to get a better position, The Washington Post reported, but rather that he was heading for the position reserved for him.
But of course, where Trump was headed was not the issue. It was the way he got there.
Markovic, afterward, responded to questions by shrugging it off.
“This was an inoffensive situation,” Markovic said. “I do not see it in any other way.”
He said he had the opportunity Thursday to thank Trump personally for his support of Montenegro’s entry into NATO and “of course the further development of our bilateral relations.”
“But, when journalists are differently commenting this scene,” the prime minister said. “I want to tell you that it is natural for the president of the United States to be in the first row.”
Montenegrin news websites were brimming with articles describing how this minor exchange captured the attention of many major U.S. and European news outlets.
Some Montenegrin news outlets included headlines quoting author J.K. Rowling, who tweeted the video, saying “You tiny, tiny, tiny little man” along with a retweeted video depicting Trump as a small man.
Montenegrin radio station Antena M included a photo of Trump above the story with the words “Days without being a national embarrassment: 0.” (That’s the numeral zero.)
“It seems Donald Trump did not want anyone overshadowing his presence at the summit,” said the Montenegro newspaper Vijesti.
Other Balkan websites ran headlines such as “America First” and “Where do you think you are going?”
As expected, the Trump shove captured the late-night shows.
“The President Show” on Comedy Central depicted an exaggerated scene, replacing the Montenegro prime minister with the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg.
“Excuse me, excuse me, get out of my way,” the show’s Trump says to the secretary general, pushing him aside as they walk into a press briefing. “America first. America first.”
Seth Meyers, host of “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” also riffed on the exchange, saying “Look at this guy. Wow.”
“You’re a world leader at a meeting of dignitaries and you act like they just called your number at KFC,” Meyers said.
“Me, that’s mine, the 12 piece,” Meyers said, mimicking someone pushing and shoving others out of the way.
Others on social media also viewed the “shove” as an attempt by Trump to revel in the spotlight and assert his “America first” mentality.
It did not go unmentioned that Trump brushed aside the leader of a country that last month defied Russia and pro-Russian opposition by ratifying its membership in NATO — a historic turn toward the West.
The Balkan country is joining the alliance as its 29th member; Thursday was its first summit. Only 18 years ago, NATO aircraft were bombing targets in Montenegro — then part of a federal republic with Serbia — in a campaign that forced troops out of Kosovo, as the Guardian’s Alec Luhn reported. The bombing remains a painful memory for many Montenegrins, and polls have shown the population evenly divided on NATO membership.
“Many hope NATO membership will end the tumultuous east-west struggle in Montenegrin politics,” Luhn wrote.
With that tense history in mind, some on social media did not take Trump’s gesture as the kindest welcome to the alliance’s new member.
“Trump shoved Prime Minister of Montenegro at NATO meeting to please Putin, once again,” said one Twitter user.
Others presumed Trump was simply moving to his assigned spot, and that the uproar over the “shove” or “push” was just another media dig at Trump.
As Dan Calabrese wrote in the Canada Free Press: “Look, I understand there’s a frenzy out there now to alert on anything and everything Trump does and to characterize it as insane, out-of-control, evil and whatever else. But if you see this and think you see a ‘shove,’ I don’t know what to tell you.”
On the other hand, whatever it was, President Trump’s treatment of Montenegro’s prime minister was a sharp contrast to say, the little curtsy he performed for King Salman bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia.
Travis Andrews contributed to this report.
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