“I have a similar plan to make the Czech Republic great again,” Babis said as Trump grinned.
Babis’s plan does sound like Trump’s approach — a focus on business and trade, portraying himself as an outsider ready to shake up the system, and an agenda that has a whiff of anti-immigration nationalism.
And those similarities, far more than the strategic importance of Babis’s small Central European country, is how he ended up at the White House smiling for the cameras alongside Trump with Babis’s wife and first lady Melania Trump seated silently to the right and left.
Trump has hosted several right-leaning populist or nationalist Eastern and Central European leaders at the White House in recent months, including 32-year-old Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in February, as he seeks to boost leaders who share his worldview at a time when more traditional U.S. allies have grown wary of their dealings with the U.S. president.
Kurz’s anti-immigration platform, coalition with a far-right party and general willingness to challenge German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s views endeared him to Trump, who exclaimed about Kurz’s youth during their Oval Office photo op.
Trump has sought out other populist European leaders who share his skepticism of the European Union, including leaders of Poland, Hungary and Italy.
His 45-second welcome to Babis was warm, if short on details.
“It’s a great honor. Great country,” Trump said as the cameras whirred. “Czech Republic doing very, very well economically and all other respects. A very safe country. Has always been a very safe country. A strong military. Strong people. And we have a very good relationship with the Czech Republic in the United States. We do a lot of trade and a lot of — just about everything you could imagine.”
Trump didn’t publicly mention that the Czech Republic has not yet met its NATO pledge to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense — an issue he brings up at every meeting with Merkel as he complains about allies taking advantage of the U.S. military largesse.
At a time when Western European leaders such as Merkel are hardly clamoring for an invitation to meet with him, Trump’s outreach to leaders who represent a challenge to the Western status quo is symbolic.
“Central Europe has populists,” said Thomas Wright, a specialist on Europe at the Brookings Institution. “There is more of a Trumpian vibe.”
The main issues between the United States and traditional allies in Western Europe these days have been contentious — including trade disputes, Trump’s continued criticism of NATO, differences over policy toward Iran, and Germany’s purchase of Russian natural gas.
It may not be surprising that Trump would feel more comfortable in the company of someone like Babis, an outsider politician and fellow businessman who is reportedly the second-richest man in the Czech Republic. He also faces many of the same criticisms and challenges that have bedeviled Trump — Babis has faced fraud allegations, investigations he says are baseless and political, conflict-of-interest complaints and questions about the role of family members.
It probably also helps that Babis said in interviews this week that his visit was a chance to stress business ties and forge a personal bond with Trump, who considers one-on-one rapport a central element of his foreign policy.
Babis praised Trump for his efforts to make a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, despite what Trump agreed Thursday was a “disappointing” end to last week’s high-profile summit with Kim.
Trump often looks bored or annoyed during the stilted public performance art involved in hosting a foreign leader at the White House, those scripted how-do-you-dos for the cameras that aides and friends say are not among his favorite duties as president.
He also appears to dislike the forced togetherness of set-piece annual meetings of leaders, such as the Group of Seven summit, coming up in June, or the NATO gathering, in July.
Which makes his choices about whom to invite to the White House, and how the public portions of those sessions play out, an important window into his priorities.
“Our bilateral business relations are growing,” Babis said in the Oval Office, as Trump agreed. “Our investors are investing in the U.S. and already created thousands of jobs.”
Babis is the first Czech Republic leader in eight years to be hosted by a U.S. president.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, another populist, got White House bells and whistles usually accorded to the leaders of major allies, such as Britain, France, Germany or Japan, when he visited last year — including a joint news conference with Trump in the East Room.
Trump has visited Poland as president and last month dispatched Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Warsaw for an international conference on the Middle East whose anti-Iran focus was an intentional rebuke to European allies who wanted Trump to adhere to a nuclear deal they helped negotiate. Poland, unlike other European allies, was eager to host.
In Washington, Babis also met with lawmakers and with CIA Director Gina Haspel, a nod to his country’s intelligence and cyber cooperation with the United States as both Russia and China attempt to increase their influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
A joint statement issued after the meeting said Trump and Babis “discussed ways to further strengthen the U.S.-Czech bilateral relationship and security cooperation, including within NATO.”
The wording appeared to leave open the possibility of bilateral defense arrangements, something that makes other NATO allies nervous.
And while recognizing the importance of alliances, the statement also nodded at the belief in nationalism Trump and Babis share.
“Strength at home is a necessary foundation for peace and security abroad,” the statement reads.