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Using flattery and man’s-man bravado, Macron seems to crack the Trump code

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

French President Emmanuel Macron and President Trump shake hands before a meeting during the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron had a message for President Trump when the two spoke on Wednesday on the delicate subject of confronting Russia.

As the lone European figure who has seemingly cracked the code of communicating with Trump, Macron spoke for other European powers when he stressed to Trump that Europeans are outraged by a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy living in Britain. The major European powers are planning a coordinated response and want American support, starting with a firmer condemnation of the attack than Trump has offered.

The result of that call was the clearest statement to date from the White House that Trump not only blames Russia for the March 4 attack but also plans to respond.

“The Presidents reiterated their solidarity with the United Kingdom in the wake of Russia’s use of chemical weapons against private citizens on British soil and agreed on the need to take action to hold Russia accountable,” a White House statement on Wednesday’s conversation said.

Macron — also an unconventional political figure — has used a mixture of flattery and man’s-man bravado to become Trump’s favorite European leader and a counterpoint to Trump’s affinity for strongmen, including Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

Macron scored the first Trump invitation for a state visit, to be held next month, and speaks to Trump often. The invitation was a mark of how Macron has come to play the role that German Chancellor Angela Merkel often played for President Barack Obama and then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair played for President George W. Bush — confidant, whisperer, teller of hard truths.

Trump’s national security advisers warned him not to congratulate Putin. He did it anyway.

It is all the more notable that Macron’s nation is second to Germany in European economic might and second to Britain in its tight military alliance with the United States. And that Macron has sharply criticized Trump over policies including the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

French retirees took to the streets March 15 to protest President Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity has dropped of late. (Video: Reuters)

Also remarkable is that Trump made his pledge to Macron rather than to British Prime Minister Theresa May, on whose soil the attack occurred. May is the leading advocate for a unified response condemning Russia for what she considers an outrageous violation of international law and a national security threat.

Trump last spoke to May on March 13. Although he had told reporters ahead of time that he would “take that as fact” if May told him that Russia was behind the attack, the White House statement that emerged later in the day did not go that far.

“President Trump agreed with Prime Minister May that the Government of the Russian Federation must provide unambiguous answers regarding how this chemical weapon, developed in Russia, came to be used in the United Kingdom,” that statement said. “The two leaders agreed on the need for consequences for those who use these heinous weapons in flagrant violation of international norms.”

Since then, the signals have been mixed. The Trump administration levied its first sanctions on Russia over election interference in the United States — something Trump had previously declined to do — while Trump was widely criticized for making a congratulatory call to Putin on Tuesday for his March 18 reelection.

Trump’s unenthusiastic relationship with May was on display at their last meeting, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

“The prime minister and myself have had a really great relationship, although some people don’t necessarily believe that, but I can tell you it’s true,” Trump said as May smiled stiffly beside him.

Trump in Paris: President revels in French military pomp far from White House turmoil

French officials, meanwhile, did not dispute reports last month that Macron helped to put the bug in Trump’s ear about attending Davos as a sort of Nixon-to-China gesture, in this case from a protectionist to the free-traders.

“That’s a good statement. I hope they mean it,” former senior State Department official Dan Fried said of the White House statement about the Macron call Wednesday.

“It would have been far better had it been coming out of the phone call between the president and President Putin, but I’ll take what I can get and good for Macron for raising it,” said Fried, a Europe specialist at the Atlantic Council. “It’s an excellent argument for leaders making a good personal relationship with President Trump so they can put things like this to him.”

The Trump-Macron call Wednesday was their second in 11 days. The two seem to have developed a rapport since their first firm-handshake meeting; Trump liked the Bastille Day military parade he attended in Paris so much that he is calling for a similar procession at home.

By contrast, Trump did not call to congratulate Merkel on her fourth term, sealed this month with the formation of a coalition government. The two did speak March 1 about Syria and Russia after an extraordinary five-month gap in their direct communications. Obama was in touch with Merkel weekly for much of his presidency, and his administration considered her the central figure in European fiscal and political stability.

A challenge for traditional U.S. allies in Europe is how to confront Russia without antagonizing Trump, who admires Putin and rails against the special counsel investigation into Russian interference that he calls a “witch hunt.”

Trump congratulates Putin on reelection, discusses ‘arms race’

Trump’s affinity for Putin — Trump has called the Russian “very smart” — appears to endure despite the abysmal state of U.S.-Russia relations. Trump came into office pledging to try to repair ties, but Putin’s decision last year to expel U.S. diplomats was widely interpreted as a signal that he had given up hope that Trump could deliver.

As The Washington Post reported Tuesday, briefing materials prepared for Trump before his call with the Russian president warned him “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” Putin on his reelection; Trump did so anyway.

Trump defended himself in tweets Wednesday, essentially making the argument that Russian cooperation can further U.S. interests.

“I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump wrote.

Trump had mused Tuesday that he and Putin would probably soon meet. They have not done so this year.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), meanwhile, said Wednesday that he has invited Macron to address a joint session of Congress on April 25, when he is in Washington for the state visit.