Early Saturday, the White House announced Trump and the first lady had scuttled plans, due to bad weather, for their first stop in the weekend’s remembrance activities — a visit to the solemn Aisne Marne American Cemetery, marking the ferocious Battle of Belleau Wood.
It was not completely clear why the Trumps were unable to attend. The cemetery is 50 miles from Paris. Perhaps the president was planning to travel on Marine One, which is occasionally grounded by the military.
But the sight of dignitaries arriving at other sites outside Paris, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, led some foreign policy analysts to speculate the U.S. commander in chief just wasn’t up for it.
“It’s incredible that a president would travel to France for this significant anniversary — and then remain in his hotel room watching TV rather than pay in person his respects to the Americans who gave their lives in France for the victory gained 100 years ago tomorrow,” David Frum, who served as a speechwriter to President George W. Bush, wrote in tweets. Trump is actually staying at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris.
So began a weekend in which Trump — battling on a number of political fronts in Washington — seemed distracted and disengaged. Trump left Washington as the list of White House worries piled up: newly empowered Democrats, criticism of his pick for acting attorney general and backlash over his personal attacks against journalists.
Trump was in France in body but appeared unenthusiastic in spirit.
The White House said Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, would attend the Belleau ceremony in the Trumps’ absence, but Frum suggested Trump could have tried to scramble a motorcade to keep his schedule.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, noted he helped plan Obama’s foreign travel throughout his two terms and said it was common to have a backup plan to deal with inclement weather.
“There is always a rain option. Always,” he wrote in a tweet. “Trump will use the U.S. military for a pre election political stunt but sits in his hotel instead of honoring those who fought and died for America.”
The cemetery has 2,288 gravesites honoring those who died, including many Americans. The names of 1,060 more Americans who went missing and whose bodies were not recovered are engraved on the walls of the site.
Trump held a bilateral meeting with Macron, but the U.S. president appeared subdued, almost sullen, as Macron tried to mask growing tensions between them.
When Macron tried to pat Trump’s thigh, the president ignored him and didn’t acknowledge the touch or reciprocate it — a marked difference from their demonstrative power-grip handshakes and back slaps during previous meetings.
Trump is still planning to attend the featured ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, where more than 100 world leaders will pay homage to the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War.
But he won’t really get a parade. The event will not feature tanks or missiles like the parade Trump had envisioned on the streets of Washington on Veterans Day but canceled due to exorbitant costs.
After another scheduled visit to a ceremony on Sunday, the president plans to fly home just as Macron’s Paris Peace Forum kicks off for three days of meetings aimed at galvanizing global action on shared challenges, such as climate change.
Thomas Wright, a Europe expert at the Brookings Institution, noted Trump announced he was going to France on a whim in August after abruptly canceling his order for the Pentagon to stage a parade.
The Peace Forum was intended “a bit as a counterpoint to ‘America First,’ ” Wright said, referring to Trump’s nationalist foreign policy in which he has unsettled allies on trade and defense. “Now they have this weird situation of Trump being there [in Paris] but the forum going against everything he and [National Security Adviser John] Bolton stand for. . . . My impression is that he’s going to pretend like it’s not happening.”
In the evening, Trump tweeted that he had spent the afternoon in meetings and making calls, though he gave no details. He followed up with a tweet warning he is closely watching the election recount in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in Florida. “Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida!” he wrote, apparently referring to Democrats.
Trump’s critics, including former national security aides under Obama, piled on — payback, perhaps, for the times Trump ridiculed Obama by calling him feckless and weak on the world stage.
In the two years since his election, Trump has not visited troops in an active war zone — an attempt to make a surprise visit to the Korean demilitarized zone in November 2017 was aborted when Marine One was forced to turn around due to bad weather.
“Real low energy, @realDonaldTrump to not bother to honor the sacrifice of American soldiers in WWI due to some rain. Somehow everyone else was able to do so today. Obama never had this problem. He also visited our troops in war zones,” Kelly Magsamen, who served as a high-ranking Pentagon official on Asia affairs, wrote on Twitter.
On Instagram, Trump did make a statement to U.S. troops, posting a photo of himself speaking to service members at Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
“Happy 243rd Birthday to the GREAT U.S. Marine Corps!” Trump wrote.
But in Paris, there were some visible signs of strain between Trump and his host amid tensions over Macron’s call for a “true European army” — remarks the U.S. president deemed “very insulting” moments after he landed here on Air Force One late Friday.
Fearful of waning U.S. commitment, Macron hinted at a new path forward for Europe during a radio interview this past week in which he touted the “project of a sovereign Europe” and argued the continent would not be protected “if we don’t decide to have a true European army.”
“We have to have a Europe that can defend itself alone — and without only relying on the United States — in a more sovereign manner,” he said.
That prompted an angry response from Trump in a tweet he sent as Air Force One touched down in Paris late Friday. Trump revived his frustration over countries in the NATO alliance that do not spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their militaries.
Ahead of their bilateral meeting at Elysee Palace, Macron attempted to soothe Trump by stressing publicly that European nations in the NATO alliance should pay more to defend themselves.
Calling Trump “my good friend,” Macron proclaimed “great solidarity” between the two nations and said the leaders will discuss a litany of issues during their one-on-one meeting, including Iran, Syria, Yemen, trade and climate change.
Trump reciprocated Macron’s warm tone, telling the French leader that we “have become very good friends” and that the two countries “have much in common in many ways.”
“I appreciate what you’re saying about burden sharing. You know my view,” Trump said. Later, he added: “We want to help Europe, but it has to be fair.”
Even as their words aimed to gloss over their differences, their body language betrayed the growing tensions.
Foreign policy analysts said Macron and other European leaders have felt burned by Trump, who pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, both negotiated by the Obama administration.
“I think he has shed any illusion about Trump that flattering him will be a way of getting concessions,” said Wright, the Brookings expert. “But he is hesitant to push back hard because he’s not sure what that will get him. It’s cautious realism.”
The Paris weather forecast shows more rain for Sunday.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Marine One is occasionally grounded by the Secret Service. It is military officials who would make that determination. This story has been updated.