While Trump struck a positive tone upon his arrival in Biarritz — tweeting “Big weekend with other world leaders!” — the tension surrounding the meeting was held barely below the surface as anxious diplomats kept close watch on the president’s Twitter account. Some Trump administration officials hinted that the president was prepared to disrupt the meeting’s carefully planned script with his trademark bombast.
Trump, who has a track record of crashing into global forums with a torrent of tweets, complaints and bluster, came to Biarritz after spending days airing more grievances than guidance for global powers facing myriad challenges, including intensifying trade wars and a potential global recession.
Aug. 26, 2019 | French President Emmanuel Macron and President Trump shake hands as they hold a news conference on the closing day of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France. (Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
The scene in France as President Trump and other world leaders gather for the G-7 summit
During a special meeting on Sunday about the state of the global economy, requested by the White House, Trump will have an opportunity to set the tone for the gathering. While Macron has sought to organize the G-7 around issues such as global inequality and development in Africa, Trump plans to use the gathering to press his “America First” agenda on trade and economic growth, officials said.
On Saturday, Trump used his brief public remarks to praise the “perfect” weather and predict that Macron and other world leaders “will accomplish a lot.” But privately, some of his advisers were grumbling over the direction the summit was taking before it even officially began. Other U.S. officials, however, tried to tamp down the idea tensions were rising, saying talks so far had been going well.
In the days leading up to the summit, Trump escalated his trade war with China, blasted Denmark for not selling Greenland to the United States, declared the world to be in recession, harassed his central bank chairman, threatened tariffs against several G-7 nations and called for G-7 outcast Russia to be re-admitted to the group.
Trump’s continued embrace of his “America First” agenda — even in the face of growing signs of global economic turmoil — indicates that the various world powers will not be able to rely on the United States for steady leadership amid crisis, said Jon B. Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There has been a complete realization on the world stage that the U.S. is not playing its traditional role, and may never again play the role it’s played for 75 years,” he said. “But it’s unclear what role the United States will play, and what the consequences of that might be.”
Trump has approached the looming economic slowdown with a mix of isolationism and frenetic energy. He has boasted that the U.S. economy remains strong while other countries are struggling. He recently floated new tax cuts and stimulus to boost the economy, only to abandon the ideas within hours.
On Friday, his trade war with China intensified as Beijing imposed retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion in American goods. Trump responded with the extraordinary step of calling on U.S. companies to stop doing business with China and calling Chinese President Xi Jinping an “enemy.”
Trump took to Twitter after markets closed Friday to announce he would be increasing tariffs on Chinese goods.
During their lunch, Macron told Trump the leaders needed to work on “how to decrease tensions and fix the situation in terms of trade.” He also discussed the global economic slowdown, saying Europe needs “some new tools to re-launch our economy.”
Trump, who has a habit of blasting world leaders over Twitter and complimenting them in person, spoke positively about his relationship with Macron.
“So far so good. The weather is perfect,” he said. “I think we will accomplish a lot this weekend.”
Shortly after the lunch, some senior administration officials said they were frustrated with how the French were handling the summit. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, two U.S. officials said they believed Macron was focusing on issues such as climate change, gender inequality and development in Africa to cater to his own domestic politics.
Trump’s administration wants more focus on trade and the economy, the officials said.
One senior administration official offered a contrary view, saying the talks so far had been positive and constructive. The differing views of aides suggested there is an uneasiness among administration officials about what the goals for the summit should be and how Trump will react when substantive discussions begin on Sunday.
Trump sounded positive on Twitter late Saturday following a dinner with fellow leaders. “France and President @EmmanuelMacron have done a really great job thus far with a very important G-7,” Trump wrote. “Lunch with Emmanuel was the best meeting we have yet had. Likewise, evening meeting with World Leaders went very well. Progress being made!”
A French official denied reports of diplomatic tensions with the United States over the summit. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid escalating any conflict with the U.S. delegation, said leaders couldn’t avoid discussing issues such as climate change at a summit like the G-7.
“It’s a topic on which citizens of all countries are expecting leaders to work on,” the official said.
In addition to the session on the economy, Trump is scheduled to discuss trade and other issues during bilateral meetings with the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada on Sunday.
Before Trump arrived, there were already signs his views on trade have become increasingly unpopular among world leaders. Tusk said Saturday that Trump’s trade wars risked sending the global economy into recession.
“For me it’s absolutely clear that if someone, for example . . . the United States and President Trump, uses tariffs and taxation as a political instrument, tool for some different political reasons, it means that this confrontation can be really risky for the whole world, including the E.U.,” Tusk said. “This is why we need the G-7.”
Tusk also said the European Union would be prepared to respond “in kind” if Trump follows through on threats to slap taxes on French wine in response to France’s embrace of a digital services tax.
The Sunday gathering focused on the global economy will include leaders of all G-7 countries — the United States, Japan, Canada, Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom — and Trump plans to use the forum to tout his own economic record and bluntly criticize several allies for their slowing growth, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Trump plans to again call out Germany for its trade practices, below-average defense spending and partnership with Russia on a gas pipeline, one official said. He will take on France for seeking to impose a “highly discriminatory” digital service tax that targets U.S. companies, another official said.
At last year’s G-7 summit in Canada, Trump signed the official joint communique only to dramatically withdraw his endorsement via tweet after watching Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak out against U.S. tariffs during a news conference.
Macron has already said he will not pursue a joint communique this year, describing the tradition as “pointless” given Trump’s combative approach.
Some leaders meeting here are facing tensions or turmoil at home that could help shape the dialogue this weekend.
Britain is paralyzed by its efforts to pull out of the E.U., facing a ticking clock to an Oct. 31 exit date with no clear plan to ease what could be a painful rupture. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been friendly with the White House in the past, but Trump could demand a steep price for a trade deal, which is a British priority. The White House has asked its European allies to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and team up against Tehran, which Britain so far has refused to do.
Macron warned Johnson against bowing down before Washington, telling reporters on Wednesday that Britain risked “a historic vassalization” if it became the “junior partner of the United States.”
In Italy, meanwhile, the government fell this past week after the anti-immigration junior partner pulled the plug on the coalition. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will come to the summit, but as a caretaker with an uncertain future after submitting his resignation on Tuesday. He presides over a country that has become riven with anti-immigration anger stoked by the leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, who has copied pages from Trump’s playbook to blame migrants for much of his country’s economic woes.
And German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who has been the most powerful European bulwark against Trump in years past — is herself a somewhat depleted force, counting down the time until her exit from office in 2021 at the latest. She, too, has been fighting an anti-immigration party at home, the far-right Alternative for Germany.
Enter Trump, who has spent much of the past week in a public feud with Denmark over the country’s refusal to sell Greenland to the United States.
“Every time President Trump comes to Europe. we notice an increased Twitter activity, and not always, I would say, E.U.-friendly,” a senior E.U. official said, speaking under ground rules of anonymity to discuss European strategy ahead of the summit. “This is also the case this time around. So we are concerned.”
The official listed disputes: on trade, on Iran, on climate, even on the basic question of whether Russia should be present at the table at the summit after its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Trump has called for Russia — which was expelled from the G-7 in 2014 — to be allowed back into the group.
The president has been isolated on that issue, one of several where the G-7 is increasingly breaking up along familiar lines, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“What I think we’re starting to see is the institutionalization of what I now call the six plus one, which is the six other countries and the United States,” she said. “What we’re seeing, I think, is the institutionalization of America alone.”