Aside from a critical tweet aimed at French President Emmanuel Macron when Trump landed in Paris late Friday — one based on an inaccurate newspaper summary of an interview Macron gave suggesting that he had called the United States a threat — Trump didn’t throw any sharp elbows at his peers here. It was still all about him.
In this case, it was because of the images.
He looked uncomfortable and listless in a bilateral meeting with Macron, whose sinewy energy stood in stark contrast to Trump’s downbeat expression as the French leader patted him on the thigh.
He was a no-show at a scheduled tour of a military cemetery for Americans, while other world leaders publicly paid homage to those who died on the battlefield. Instead, the president holed up at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, announcing later that he had spent a few hours making calls and attending meetings — but not offering to whom or about what.
And Sunday, Trump arrived separately from the 60 other leaders at a World War I remembrance at the Arc de Triomphe. He had no speaking role, sitting stone-faced as Macron railed against the rise of nationalism — a rebuke of Trump’s professed worldview.
The overall takeaway to many was a president turning away from the world, a man occupying the office of the leader of the free world who appeared withdrawn and unenthusiastic on the global stage.
“Watching the event from France I cannot recall a time when America seemed so isolated,” David Axelrod, who was a senior political adviser to President Barack Obama, wrote on Twitter late Sunday. “America First feels like America Alone.”
On previous foreign trips, Trump had made his presence felt, taking pains to push other leaders around. He shoved past the prime minister of Montenegro to get to the front of a group of fellow leaders at a dedication ceremony of a new NATO headquarters in May 2017. He engaged in a macho 29-second handshake with Macron during a visit to Paris in July 2017 for a Bastille Day parade.
He abruptly revoked U.S. support for a milquetoast joint communique at the Group of Seven Summit in Quebec last spring, in a fit of pique over mild criticism from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom Trump called “mild and meek” and “very dishonest & weak” in a tweet. And he disparaged British Prime Minister Theresa May in an interview with a London newspaper that was published just as he arrived in the country to meet her in July.
In Washington, before he left for Paris, Trump had been on a tear of executive actions after a midterm election in which Republicans lost control of the House. He ousted Jeff Sessions as attorney general and named a loyalist as his temporary replacement. He banned a CNN correspondent from the White House. And he signed a proclamation to deny asylum to Central American migrants, one that is likely to draw legal challenges.
But Trump displayed almost none of that kind of overt provocation here in Paris.
Although national security adviser John Bolton had said Trump was likely to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it did not happen. They spoke, but only to begin setting up a formal meeting in two weeks at the Group of 20 Summit in Buenos Aires. Although Trump had made a big show of his summit in Helsinki in July — defying Washington’s foreign policy elite who warned that he was rewarding Putin’s bad behavior — it was Putin, not Trump, who revealed publicly that they had spoken in Paris.
And according to Russia’s authoritarian ruler, the reason he and Trump had not had a longer meeting here was out of respect for a request from their French hosts that they not do anything to overshadow the dignity of the remembrance ceremonies. In this telling, two leaders not known for respecting the global order were doing just that.
Likewise, at a dinner for the world leaders Saturday at the presidential palace, the White House press pool was kept outside, not allowed in even for the standard “pool spray” in which they are permitted to enter for a quick photo op that often can lead to the kind of off-the-cuff remarks from Trump that set cable news chyrons ablaze and social media atwitter.
Trump did make some news at the dinner — but not necessarily because he wanted to. It was the Turkish government that released a photo of Trump with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has said he has presented evidence that Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Turkey as part of a Saudi government assassination plot.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders grudgingly confirmed to reporters the next day that the two leaders had been seated together and had spoken about the journalist’s death.
Even on Twitter, Trump was relatively mum on foreign affairs during the trip. He tweeted happy birthday wishes to the U.S. Marine Corps on Saturday and a Veterans Day greeting to the troops Sunday. He wrote several insensitive tweets about the forest fires in California, and he repeated a falsehood he has said before, implying that Democrats are trying to steal elections in Florida after the state began a recount in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in which GOP candidates held narrow leads.
But Trump also wrote on Twitter that the World War I ceremony was “Beautiful,” and he thanked Macron. And in his 10-minute address at the Suresnes American Cemetery in Paris where more than 1,500 U.S. troops are buried, Trump stuck closely to his prepared remarks, which were respectful.
“It’s a wonderful two days we spent in France,” he said. “This is certainly the highlight.”
Still, the outrage was widespread and swift.
Reacting to a video clip from a Washington Post reporter showing world leaders striding together along the Champs-Elysees with Trump not participating, Michael V. Hayden, who served as director of the CIA and the National Security Agency under President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter: “WHAT!!! (Actually, what the **** ,but you know what I mean.”
David Rothkopf, a former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, mocked Trump: “The isolationism seems to be working. Have you ever seen an American president more isolated than Trump appears to be in Paris?”
In Paris, the local newspapers were also highly critical. Le Journal’s Sunday cover led with a close-up photo of Trump pointing a finger and the headline, “Why Trump threatens us.” Le Parisien went with a photo of Trump and Macron facing off and the headline, “Macron’s other front.”
And Le Monde led its weekend edition with an even more ominous bulletin: “The Europe-United States divorce: Tensions in the Western family.” It was accompanied by a photo of Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is covering her face with her hands.
Trump was not making a sound, but his presence could still be heard loud and clear.