In French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, many have seen a sort of Donald Trump lite — an isolationist candidate with a populist message and an anti-immigrant stance.
And many have prognosticated that Le Pen and Trump are part of a transatlantic mutual admiration society. Le Pen was photographed eating ice cream at Trump Tower. Trump told the Associated Press that Le Pen is “the strongest on what's been going on in France.” Le Pen paid Trump the biggest compliment a politician can receive: If she were American, he'd have her vote.
Then Reince Priebus went on NBC's “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
The president's chief of staff was the first in the administration to address the tweet directly — and to try to back off the foregone conclusion that Trump strongly supports Le Pen.
His answer: “No, not at all.”
According to a transcript, Priebus told host Chuck Todd that Trump “is going to support whoever the winner is. We've got a long-term relationship that's historical with the French people and the French government. No matter who wins, that relationship is going to continue.”
Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron claimed victory in France's election on Sunday, and both are headed to a runoff on May 7.
The Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote that Trump was playing a political game in which “politicians say nice things about other politicians but insist they aren't 'endorsing' them.”
“While the media often handicaps foreign elections and candidates' strengths and weaknesses — it's part of our job — presidents and other world leaders avoid doing so for fear of looking like they are trying to tip the scales in another country,” Blake wrote.
“Trump also just happened to underscore an issue that he feels is of the utmost importance — it was the subject of his first controversial executive action, the travel ban — and then pointed to Le Pen as clearly the best candidate on that issue. That's no coincidence.”
In a rally in France last week, Le Pen gave a speech on immigration that could have been a Trump campaign rally cry if a few proper nouns were changed.
“Just watch the interlopers from all over the world come and install themselves in our home,” she said, according to the New York Times article on the event. “They want to transform France into a giant squat. … But it’s up to the owner to decide who can come in. So, our first act will be to restore France’s frontiers.”
On Sunday, when pressed, Priebus conceded that Trump “may have some opinions, as far as who he thinks might win. But he certainly doesn't have a preference, other than a right-of-center person who believes in the free market.”