The leader of the world’s oldest democracy welcomed the leader of the world’s largest democracy to the White House Rose Garden on Monday and proclaimed them both “believers” in public accountability.
“Not many people know it, but both American and the Indian constitutions begin with the same three very beautiful words: ‘We the people,’ ” President Trump said, adding that he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “both understand the crucial importance of those words.”
Then he added a Trumpian boast, noting that the two are “world leaders in social media,” which he defined as “giving the citizens of our countries the opportunity to hear directly from their elected officials and for us to hear directly from them. I guess it’s worked very well in both cases.”
It might have worked out well for Trump and Modi, who each have more than 30 million followers on Twitter, but not so much for the several dozen reporters from the United States and India who were seated in rows of folding chairs under a warm late-afternoon sun. The journalists were told ahead of time that there would be no questions allowed — a break from the typical Rose Garden tradition of two questions from each press delegation.
On a day when the Supreme Court announced that it would review Trump’s travel ban on some majority-Muslim countries in the fall — and allowed a portion of it to move forward — and when the Congressional Budget Office stated that the Senate Republicans’ health-care bill would leave 22 million fewer people insured, the president’s refusal to answer questions frustrated the assembled press corps.
The White House declined to offer details about whose decision it was — the Americans’ or the Indians’ — to bar questions. But on Trump’s favorite social-media platform, Twitter users on both sides of the world were quick to suggest that their own leader was more averse to public scrutiny and transparency.
“Today is an important reminder that the two largest, most powerful democracies in the world are becoming increasing illiberal/authoritarian,” one American University student wrote.
The Trump-Modi summit , which included a cocktail reception and a working dinner at the White House, the first in the Trump era, was billed by both sides as a chance for the two leaders, who had previously spoken by phone, to develop a rapport and build stronger bilateral ties on security, counterterrorism and economics.
In their Rose Garden statements, Trump thanked Modi for India’s efforts to counter “radical Islamic terrorism” and for contributing to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, as well as the economic sanctions on North Korea — a priority for Trump, who referred to a regime that “is causing tremendous problems and is something that has to be dealt with, and probably dealt with rapidly.”
Modi lavished praise on Trump and his family — including first lady Melania Trump, who had joined the president in greeting Modi’s arrival on the South Lawn, and daughter Ivanka Trump, whom Modi said would lead the U.S. delegation to a global entrepreneur’s summit in India.
There was no mention of fault lines between the White House and New Delhi on the Paris climate accord, which Trump announced this month the United States would withdraw from but which India and China have supported. Nor did Modi mention immigration issues amid speculation that the Trump administration could cut H-1B visas for high-tech workers, visas that have benefited India.
Ahead of the summit, Indian diplomats emphasized the commonalities Modi shares with Trump. Both have business sensibilities and populist appeal, they said, and both came to power from positions well outside their respective capital cities.
Critics, including civil liberties groups, have highlighted other similarities among two leaders who have sought, at times, to restrict media coverage and the flow of information.
This month, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation raided the homes and offices of top television executives whose news channel NDTV has often clashed with Modi’s government. On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer again declined to allow cameras to record and broadcast his daily briefing.
In the Rose Garden, several television reporters, seated behind three rows of Trump aides, including Ivanka Trump and Vice President Pence, shouted questions to the president about the health-care bill.
But Trump ignored them, turning to lead Modi back to the safety, and privacy, of the Oval Office.