The world according to President Trump is mostly about President Trump.
Even with British Prime Minister Theresa May standing at the lectern just to his right Friday, the new president used his first joint news conference with a world leader to underscore that while his campaign message may have been “America first,” his actual guiding philosophy is more “Trump first.”
On a host of issues, from Russia to torture to Brexit, Trump cast his policy positions almost entirely in terms of personal — not foreign — relations.
The unusually brief bilateral news conference was, in short, a master class in the geopolitics of personal relationships.
On Russia — a dynamic that clouded his campaign and stemmed, in part, from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s praise of Trump as a “smart” leader — Trump portrayed his policy toward Moscow largely as a question of how he and Putin will hit it off.
“I don’t know the gentleman,” Trump said. “I hope we have a fantastic relationship. That’s possible, and it’s also possible that we won’t.”
Then, almost as if speaking about a blind date gone awry instead of the leader of one of the nation’s fiercest rivals, Trump added: “I’ve had many times where I thought I’d get along with people and I don’t like them at all.”
Of course, Trump is hardly the first president to hold himself and his powers of persuasion in high regard. Barack Obama used his personal narrative and multicultural background to cast himself as uniquely suited to bridge partisan divides and build new partnerships around the globe, including a “reset” of relations with Russia. George W. Bush cultivated an image of a straight-shooting Texan who tried to court Putin in 2001 when he recounted to reporters that he had gazed into the leader’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” (After leaving the White House, he painted an oil portrait of Putin looking both solemn and impenetrable.)
Putin’s government has annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, challenged U.S. efforts in Syria and allegedly meddled in the U.S. presidential election. On Saturday, Trump — who is considering lifting economic sanctions against Russia — is scheduled to get his first real sense of Putin when the two are scheduled to talk on the phone. Trump will speak with the leaders of Germany and France, as well.
Asked about enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which Trump has said that he believes are effective, he reiterated his support for torture — “I happen to feel that it does work,” he said — but also made clear that he would defer to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who takes an opposing view, in large part because of their strong bond.
“He’s the general’s general,” said Trump, who is known to prefer his cabinet secretaries to look like they’re out of “central casting” and reportedly picked the retired general in part because he admired Mattis’s “Mad Dog” nickname.
“He’s an expert, he’s highly respected,” Trump said, referring to Mattis, whose swearing-in he attended at the Pentagon on Friday afternoon. “Got through the Senate very, very quickly, which in this country is not easy, I will tell you. And so I’m going to rely on him.”
Trump bragged that he had correctly predicted Britain’s Brexit vote to withdraw from the European Union. He also viewed it in terms of a business deal gone wrong, saying that in his previous life as a real estate magnate, he had a “very bad experience” when dealing with the group of European nations.
“Getting the approvals from the country was fast, easy and efficient,” he said. “Getting the approvals from the group — I call them the consortium — was very, very tough.”
Then, his negative business experience firmly established as the lens through which he views the E.U., Trump issued his final verdict: “I think it will go down that it will end up being a fantastic thing for the United Kingdom,” he said. “I think in the end, it will be a tremendous asset, not a tremendous liability, okay?”
Never one to miss a branding opportunity, Trump — who has turned over management of his holdings to his adult sons but retains ownership of the company — also managed to plug his golf course, Trump Turnberry. “I happened to be in Scotland at Turnberry cutting a ribbon when Brexit happened and we had a vast amount of press there,” Trump said.
Yet for a man who so values personal relationships, Trump did not seem to be in total sync with May. The prime minister — matching Trump’s wide red tie with a smart red suit of her own — played the more traditional role of world leader, complete with deferential gestures and niceties. The president was more subdued than normal, but still looked a bit like he was an emcee introducing the winner of a spelling bee.
At times, as May turned to Trump, seeming to seek affirmation or at least encouragement, the president stared straight ahead, unaware of his guest’s entreaties. At one point, Trump answered a question directed at her, interjecting, “I think the prime minister, first of all, has other things that she’s much more worried about than Mexico and the United States’ relationship.”
When it was finally her turn to answer, May echoed Trump’s line: “As the president himself has said, the relationship of the United States with Mexico is a matter for the United States and Mexico,” she said.
At another point, May called on a BBC reporter who posed a tough question, noting that Trump’s views on torture, Russia and a Muslim ban were “alarming beliefs” to many in Britain. Trump turned to the prime minister and seemed to jokingly blame her for the query.
“This was your choice of a question?” he said, to laughter. “There goes that relationship.”
But, as Trump has long intuited at a visceral level, the personal is political and he ended their news conference with a physical gesture that seemed to underscore the special relationship between the United States and its partner across the Atlantic. As the two strolled away from the East Room and down the white marble colonnade, Trump grasped May’s hand and at one point clutched her right hand between both of his.
The moment was a success: Early editions of Britain’s Saturday newspapers were filled with photos of the pair holding hands, along with breathless headlines proclaiming: “May and Trump’s Love-In.”
David Nakamura and Anne Gearan in Washington and Griff Witte in London contributed to this report.