According to audio obtained by the Guardian, Trump also told the leaders assembled virtually that he looked forward to working with them “for a long time,” even though most of them had already congratulated President-elect Joe Biden on his election victory. His brief address on the pandemic touted the might of the U.S. military and economy and his administration’s role in helping to create a vaccine. “His was the anomalous speech,” a diplomatic source said to the Guardian. “Everyone else talked about global matters of life and death.”
The next day in a meeting on climate change and the environment, Trump once again waved his “America First” standard, decrying global efforts to reckon with climate change. “The Paris accord was not designed to save the environment,” he said. “It was designed to kill the American economy.”
The mounting impatience of his counterparts is not difficult to imagine. Trump’s foray into foreign policy began in pomp and splendor as a guest of Saudi King Salman in Riyadh in May 2017. Nearly four years later, it was fizzling out in a virtual session hosted by the same monarch, whose own officials made statements that seemed to criticize Trump’s approach to the pandemic, including his withdrawal from the U.N.’s World Health Organization.
The summit’s closing joint communique supported strengthening the WHO and boosting overall global coordination. It could be read as “a retort to the Trump administration and its go-it-alone approach to international challenges ranging from the pandemic to climate change,” reported my colleague Kareem Fahim.
“As best we know, no G-20 participants told Trump to his virtual face that his time is up, and no one here will write him off until he is finally gone,” noted CNN correspondent Nic Robertson. “But he seemed to make the point himself as the G-20 wrapped and the King delivered the final communique while surrounded by leaders in their zoom boxes, Trump was not in his chair — instead a disinterested underling, an apparent final gesture of contempt.”
Trump was never a fan of multilateral summitry. One of the most iconic images of the Trump presidency emerged from a 2018 meeting of the Group of Seven major economies: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, flanked by other leaders, stared down a seated Trump from across a table. He smirked with his arms folded, evoking an unrepentant schoolchild. Trump’s positions on trade or Russia or any number of other political challenges that saw him clash with allies might not have changed. But his performance this weekend showed that the fire of “America First” is petering out.
My colleagues report Trump is in private already discussing his next act with advisers. It may involve another media reincarnation for the former reality TV host as well as preparations for a fresh presidential run in 2024. But his efforts could be complicated by the extensive catalogue of lawsuits and legal investigations that await him and his business organization once he leaves the White House.
His administration, though, is still shaking things up overseas even as Trump reckons with his looming exit. On Sunday, the United States formally quit the Open Skies treaty, a nearly three-decades-old pact between the West and Russia that allowed for unarmed reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory. The agreement was forged to bring down the risks of an accidental war, but the Trump administration argued that Russia had been violating it. The Russians deny the charge, while Biden and a host of former U.S. defense officials criticized Trump’s decision to collapse the accord. To make it harder for a Biden administration to reverse the move, the Trump administration has started to liquidate U.S. Air Force equipment used under the terms of the treaty.
That adds to the list of possible foreign policy headaches Trump and his allies can still create for Biden. On a tour of Gulf countries, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed the administration would maintain “maximum pressure” on Iran through Trump’s final day in office and suggested more sanctions may follow in the coming “weeks and months.” The administration could also move to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, which would complicate peace negotiations and humanitarian efforts in the war-ravaged country.
For this year’s G-20 hosts, the summit hardly delivered the soft power windfall they had reason to expect when preparations for it began. The run-up to this weekend’s events saw a coordinated boycott by the mayors of major Western cities and a pressure campaign by international advocacy groups to draw attention to Saudi Arabia’s grim human rights record. Trump shielded the Saudis from criticism in Washington, especially after the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
It’s unclear if Biden will make good on his campaign pledge to make Riyadh a “pariah.” But Saudi officials are already adjusting to a post-Trump reality. “We deal with the presidents once they’re in office, and we have huge interests with the United States,” Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs, told CNN over the weekend. “We are working together on global economic security, on energy security, on financial issues, and we are key in terms of the Muslim world. These interests are huge for us and for the United States.”