Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet offered a blunt summary of the meeting: “Niinisto’s visit was overshadowed by Circus Trump — President Niinisto asked Trump to safeguard U.S. democracy.”
“It was a very typical Trump news conference with a foreign leader. [Trump talks,] and the foreign leader is just a prop, who basically watches and tries to keep a straight face,” Jussi Hanhimaki, a Finnish researcher focusing on transatlantic relations, told The Washington Post.
During the combative news conference Wednesday, Trump lashed out at the media, accusing journalists of undermining U.S. democracy and being “corrupt people.” Responding to questions about a July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president that is at the center of an impeachment inquiry, Trump told a reporter: “It’s a whole hoax, and you know who’s playing into the hoax? People like you and the fake news media that we have in this country.”
Meanwhile, Niinisto largely looked on in silence. Photos of his bewildered face quickly circulated online. But when Trump began responding to a question addressed to Niinisto, the Finnish leader interrupted: “I think the question is for me.”
In what Finnish commentators suggested was a subtle dig at Trump, Niinisto at one point also said: “Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on.” (Trump appeared to interpret that remark as praise.)
But to Finnish observers, Hanhimaki said, it was as far as any leader would “go in terms of implying something about the U.S. president.”
Mikko Saikku, a professor of American studies at the University of Helsinki, said that Niinisto is known for such ambiguous statements and that it is not unusual for him to keep his cool in an uncomfortable setting.
“That wasn’t an easy place for him, with Trump raging about the investigation and impeachment and all that,” Saikku said. “He was able to handle that quite well, and he was able to sweep in some of his trademark remarks.”
Laura Saarikoski, managing editor of Finland’s leading daily newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, said, “Quite a few people couldn’t help but feel sorry for Niinisto when he had to sit there and try not to look too awkward.”
At one point, as the two sat together in the Oval Office, Trump leaned over and slapped Niinisto’s knee. Niinisto responded by raising his hand in a move that was widely interpreted as him brushing Trump away.
It seemed as though Niinisto “didn’t want to be seen as being on the same side or joining what Trump was saying,” Saarikoski said. "He didn’t want to be impolite but didn’t want Trump to hold his knee.”
Saarikoski, who was previously a U.S.-based correspondent for her newspaper and co-authored a book about Trump, said that even if Finns spent Thursday joking about it, there are “serious undertones” to his rhetoric.
“I don’t know whether it’s a tactic from Trump that he always goes on these rages when he has a foreign head of state next to him,” she said.
If Trump wants to address domestic concerns with American reporters, she said, “he could just hold a news conference and let out fumes while there with the U.S. press.”
Finnish observers also took issue with Trump’s treatment of the media.
“If Donald Trump shouted less, reporters might hear better,” the Helsingin Sanomat commented, in a reference to the president’s frequent criticism of media outlets for allegedly misquoting him.
The Aamulehti paper reminded its readers that a “clash between Niinisto and the media,” akin to Trump’s confrontations with journalists, “seems like a very distant, almost impossible thought,” given Finland’s high level of press freedom.
The Ilta-Sanomat tabloid described Trump’s performance as “perplexing.” Meanwhile, a body language expert interviewed by the paper to decipher the tumultuous news conference described Niinisto as “relaxed compared to Trump,” as he was listening to what the Iltalehti tabloid described as “Trump’s quirky monologue” in the Oval Office, before the news conference.
Other Finnish papers similarly applauded the Finnish president for handling his “role of a bystander with honor,” as Helsingin Sanomat wrote.
Besides the possibility of getting drawn into the domestic U.S. debate over an impeachment inquiry, Niinisto faced the risk of triggering Trump’s anger over trade ties between the United States and the European Union. Niinisto’s visit to the White House on Wednesday coincided with a ruling by the World Trade Organization that Trump can impose tariffs on about $7.5 billion worth of European goods because the European Union was found to have illegally subsidized aircraft manufacturer Airbus in the past. The ruling played into Trump’s narrative that Europe’s trade policies disadvantage U.S. companies.
“Niinisto suddenly had to become the defender of the European Union, even though he was not expecting to be in that position,” Hanhimaki said.
While Trump did reiterate that “countries were ripping off the United States for many years,” his continuous attacks on Europe over trade policies largely went unnoticed amid his diatribes against the media and his opponents.
And there have been awkward moments between Trump and Niinisto before. In a 2017 joint news conference at the White House, Niinisto called on a Finnish journalist to offer her the chance to ask a question. Trump replied by suggesting that the Finnish leader was offering the same reporter a second chance at a question. "Again?” Trump asked. “You’re going to give her — the same one?”
Niinisto gently clarified that this was a different woman than the one he had called on before. “We have a lot of blond women in Finland,” the reporter quipped with a smile.
This time, Trump wrapped up the news conference by calling it “an honor” to be with Niinisto.
“He’s done a fantastic job. Very popular, beloved over in Finland," he said.
And perhaps especially so after Wednesday, Finnish commentators suggested.
“Niinisto is pretty popular, but I don’t think he’s ever looked quite as good as compared to Trump last night,” Saarikoski said.
And the Finnish leader himself suggested he enjoyed his stay in Washington, tweeting Thursday that in addition to meetings with Trump and Pence and a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, he visited three museums and roller-skated twice. Plus, the Washington Nationals baseball team won while he was in town.
“Perfect,” he wrote. “Thanks Washington!”