French President Emmanuel Macron had confronted Trump on areas of disagreement, and a video surfaced of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau privately mocking the American president in a huddle with Macron and other world leaders during a Buckingham Palace reception.
But in many respects, Trump’s abrupt departure was typical for a president who has routinely upended foreign visits during his first three years in office — blustering, bullying and attempting at all times to keep the world’s attention squarely on himself.
He has criticized his hosts and issued global threats. He’s hobnobbed with dictators and feuded with allies. And, as he did this week in Watford, he has sometimes sulked when things aren’t going his way — part of the compendium of behaviors that make up Trump’s overseas adventures as president.
The unruly guest
The last time Trump visited London, in June, he caused a ruckus by declaring that privatizing Britain’s National Health Service — a sacrosanct postwar creation that provides free health care to Britons — would be “on the table” for trade discussions.
The faux pas quickly became a talking point among British politicians hoping to succeed then-Prime Minister Theresa May. And Trump backtracked shortly thereafter.
“I don’t see it being on the table,” Trump said, contradicting his own comments. “That’s something I would not consider part of trade. That’s not trade.”
And on Tuesday, when asked again if he thought Britain’s health system should be part of trade negotiations with the United States, Trump acted like his previous comments didn’t exist: “I don’t even know where that rumor started.”
“If you handed it to us on a silver platter, we want nothing to do with it,” he concluded.
Trump has made similar reversals on other ventures abroad. Attending the Group of Seven summit in August in Biarritz, France, Trump seesawed over his trade war with China. First, via Twitter, he “hereby ordered” American companies out of China. Then he conceded he had “second thoughts” about the tariffs he had levied on Chinese products.
And then, only a few hours later — amid news coverage that he had backtracked and was softening his stance on China, two things he is loath to be seen as doing — he said his only second thought was not making the tariffs higher.
The presidential whipsaw triggered gyrations in stock markets and led allies to doubt the stability of American leadership.
In Britain this week, Trump managed to contradict himself again — in almost the same breath.
Asked about the video of Trudeau laughing about him behind his back, Trump criticized, then praised the Canadian leader in rapid succession.
“Well, he’s two-faced,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “And honestly, with Trudeau, he’s a nice guy. I find him to be a very nice guy.”
Later in the day, Trump was caught on an open microphone bragging about his Trudeau put-down, remarking to another summit attendee, “That was funny when I said that guy was two-faced.”
The unofficial rule of overseas travel is that domestic politicking is supposed to stop at the water’s edge. But this week in Britain — as he has done so many times previously — Trump behaved as if he were at one of his campaign rallies rather than a statesman abroad, trashing his rivals on foreign soil.
As he and Trudeau sat in gold-colored armchairs for a bilateral meeting on trade and other weighty matters, Trump lit into one of his domestic adversaries, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who has been leading the impeachment inquiry.
“I think he’s a maniac,” Trump said in response to a reporter’s question, as Trudeau looked on. “I think Adam Schiff is a deranged human being. I think he grew up with a complex for lots of reasons that are obvious. I think he’s a very sick man. And he lies.”
In a meeting earlier that day with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump described congressional Democrats as “very unpatriotic” because they were investigating his conduct. “They are hurting our country very badly,” Trump said.
Trump has used other foreign backdrops to trash his U.S. political opposition. Perhaps most striking was during his June trip to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, where the president sat for an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and — as white grave markers stretched behind him to the horizon — slammed his domestic rivals.
Trump called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “a nasty, vindictive, horrible person” and, against the austere backdrop of the cemetery, weighed in on a host of other political issues.
The president’s violations of protocol have been legion. When Trump traveled to London in July 2018, he opened his trip by trashing his host in an interview with the Sun, a British newspaper. The president said May had screwed up Brexit negotiations by allowing European Union leaders to hold “all the cards.”
Trump’s blunt comments ricocheted across Britain and diminished and embarrassed May, whose domestic political standing already was weak. Trump later apologized for his diatribe and the two leaders appeared side-by-side at Chequers, the prime minister’s country house, where the American president told the British prime minister, “Whatever you do is okay with me.”
During this week’s trip — after the mocking video emerged — Trump kept British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Stoltenberg waiting for six minutes before finally emerging onstage Wednesday for a ceremonial handshake.
As the two leaders waited, they paced, peered backstage and, at one point, consulted with Stoltenberg’s pocket schedule. Johnson appeared perturbed, gesturing to a bank of cameras and noting, “We’re live now.”
“How are we doing? Come on!” Johnson said.
Finally, Trump strode onstage, and the three men shook hands and posed for a photo before Trump tried to exit in the wrong direction.
The alpha diplomat
The most acrimonious of Trump’s meetings here was with Macron — and from the moment the two men clasped hands in one of the forceful, extended handshakes for which they have now become known, both presidents used their physicality to try to assert dominance.
As Trump spoke, Macron spread his legs wide — a stance known as “man-spreading” — and casually leaned forward in his armchair. As Macron spoke, Trump steepled his fingers, peered around the room and made eye contact with reporters, as if to convey indifference.
Such physicality is hardly new to Trump. At his first NATO meeting, in Brussels in 2017, Trump shoved the prime minister of Montenegro to get ahead of him in line when the allies gathered for a group photo.
Montenegro’s leader dismissed Trump’s brush-past as “inoffensive,” but the physical slight was particularly symbolic in the small Balkan nation, whose leader was attending his first NATO summit after a nearly decade-long quest to join the alliance.
At the 2018 G-7 meeting in Canada, Trump grew frustrated as he sat at a table, other leaders hovering over him amid tense trade talks. He crossed his arms in defiance — a moment captured in a photograph released by the German government that went viral, a modern-day Renaissance painting for the Trump era.
Trump then reportedly stood up, reached into his suit jacket and tossed two Starburst candies onto the table.
“Here, Angela,” the president said, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, according to Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk consultancy. “Don’t say I never give you anything.”
The strongman's friend
NATO leaders were gathered for their three-hour plenary session Wednesday in Watford when, suddenly, Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ducked out and retreated for a private tête-à-tête.
The president left a gathering of Western allies for an exclusive, half-hour audience with the most authoritarian leader in attendance — a man accused of eroding democratic norms at home. Some NATO diplomats were surprised that Trump would shirk the main event to hang out with a strongman.
A White House spokesman declined to say whether Trump confronted Erdogan over Turkey’s recent displacement and slaughter of Kurds.
“Of course it strikes everyone how much the two connect,” said one senior NATO diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting. “Even physically, Erdogan would put his arm around his shoulders.”
During meetings abroad with allies, Trump frequently finds himself seemingly aligned with dictators, despots and authoritarian-minded leaders.
Ahead of the Group of Seven summit in August, Trump offered reassurances to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who had been worried the G-7 allies would gang up on him over criticism of his handling of massive fires that had been raging across the Amazon rainforest.
“Absolutely, we will be a voice for Brazil,” Trump told Bolsonaro, a far-right leader whose presidency has been polarizing at home.
The first time Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the 2017 Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, he attempted to conceal what he and Putin discussed by confiscating the notes of the official U.S. interpreter.
Later on the same trip, Trump huddled with Putin at length during a ceremonial leaders’ dinner. He had no note taker or other U.S. official present and relied only on Putin’s interpreter to understand the Russian president.
And at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, this past June, Trump heaped praise on Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, describing as “a friend of mine” the leader who U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded ordered the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Trump’s embrace in Osaka helped salvage the global reputation of Mohammed, preventing the crown prince from becoming a global pariah and ensuring that Saudi Arabia would remain a hub for investment.
“I want to just thank you on behalf of a lot of people, and I want to congratulate you,” Trump told Mohammed. “You’ve done, really, a spectacular job.”
The pouting traveler
As Trump retreated prematurely Wednesday to Air Force One — saying he was abruptly canceling his wrap-up news conference because he’d already fielded so many questions from reporters the day prior — he was caught on an open microphone mocking the criticism he expected to receive.
“ ‘He didn’t do a press conference! He didn’t do a press conference!’ ” Trump exclaimed, mimicking imagined punditry.
It was not the first time, however, that Trump had departed on a petulant note.
At the July 2018 NATO summit in Brussels, the president interrupted a wrap-up session about Ukraine to threaten to change America’s commitment to the alliance if other countries did not ante up more money for defense on the spot. Trump had been fuming that morning because he did not think the media had adequately captured his anger with Germany and other nations over their levels of defense spending.
Trump’s move, which many allies interpreted as signaling the possible withdrawal of the United States from NATO, triggered an emergency confab.
Afterward, many leaders looked drained, as though they had passed through a physical ordeal.
That’s how some of them had felt a month earlier when Trump stormed out of a G-7 summit in Quebec by retracting U.S. support for the joint communique that already had been agreed to in an effort to demonstrate unity among the allies.
Aboard Air Force One en route to his next stop — Singapore, for a historic summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — Trump lashed out at the G-7’s host on Twitter. He called Trudeau “meek and mild” and “very dishonest & weak” after the Canadian prime minister spoke out against the tariffs Trump had imposed against some Canadian imports.
It was, of course, not the last time Trudeau would find himself in Trump’s crosshairs. After all, the video of Trudeau and other leaders mocking the president prompted Trump’s “two-faced” dig — and may well have influenced his hasty departure from Watford.
By Thursday morning — after returning to Washington with no major agreements in hand — Trump was crowing about the trip as a great success.
“Tremendous things achieved for U.S. on my NATO trip,” Trump tweeted. “Proudly for our Country, no President has ever achieved so much in so little time.”