- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
When Donald Trump departed on his maiden overseas trip, it was impossible to resist the comparison with the last time a president got out of town to escape such a vortex of scandals: the summer of 1974, when Richard Nixon jetted to the Middle East and Moscow just weeks before Watergate consumed him. Reflecting back on that time, Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger memorably described the Washington mood as “malarial,” with each day bringing a new twist in the president’s fate. “The fever chart would rise and the patient would approach delirium for a few days,” Kissinger recalled. “Suddenly the fever would break, leaving no trace save the increased weakness of the victim.”
So in his week away from Washington’s delirium, how did Trump do? My overall impression of the trip is like that of Trump’s casinos: all glitz and gaud on the outside, but deeply flawed within.
In the Middle East, Trump got the symbolism he craves: he basked in the glow of gold, enjoyed the pomp and circumstance, got some good photo ops (although with the “magic orb” shot, also a truly bizarre one), and mostly said the right things. He kept his tweeting in check — although one wonders whether that was intentional or simply because of the time change and the fact that he had little time for cable news — and committed only a few gaffes. He generally steered clear of the drama he left behind, the only exception being his unsolicited denial that he told the Russian foreign minister that Israel was the source of the sensitive intelligence about the Islamic State laptop plot, which simply confirmed the story.
Looking past the spectacle, the substance of the Middle East stops showed a remarkable degree of continuity. His Saudi visit built on President Barack Obama’s efforts to have regular leader summits with Arab partners (starting in Camp David in 2015 and Riyadh last year), with the same themes: doing more together to fight terrorism, standing up to Iran, and providing Gulf partners with military capabilities. Despite all the hoopla about arms deals, many of them had in fact been inked under Obama — but the Saudis never followed up — and the new agreements were similar to what Hillary Clinton would have cut had she been elected. The most consequential difference, of course, was Trump’s silence on democratic values and human rights.
In Israel, Trump talked tough on Iran and touted Middle East peace. But he didn’t offer anything new — in fact, he tried to take credit for the close security relationship established under Obama, including the Iron Dome missile-defense system. That didn’t stop the Israelis from pouring praise on Trump, hoping rhetoric would compensate for their lack of Saudi-style bling.
The mood changed dramatically when Trump left the controlled confines of the Middle East — whose autocrats understand him implicitly — and into the world of liberal democracies. In Europe, where the leaders were less fawning and the press less forgiving, Trump got himself into trouble. The contrast was remarkable: for this first time I can think of, we saw an American president who is more at home among Arab monarchs than democratic European allies.
Trump’s bar for success in Europe was very low. It was to be a diplomatic version of his address before Congress earlier this year: if he followed the choreography, read what was put in front of him, and didn’t act crazy, everyone would be relieved that he seemed “presidential.” Instead we got vintage Trump — preening, impetuous, attentive to every slight, pushing his way to the front, trying to out-muscle every handshake. The Europeans were desperate to hear Trump simply reaffirm NATO’s mutual defense pledge and state his commitment to enhanced deterrence against Russia. But they got neither.
With just a few sentences and gestures of macho puffery, Trump undercut all of the earnest efforts by his national security team to reassure the European partners about the U.S. commitment to NATO and a strong transatlantic partnership. After listening to Trump, do any European allies feel any more convinced the United States has their backs? Too bad for Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the others in the “axis of adults,” who apparently pushed hard to get Trump to clearly endorse NATO’s Article Five obligation, but ultimately failed. They all own this one.
And it is likely going to get worse. If there’s one pattern in Trump’s conduct of foreign policy, it’s that it doesn’t take long for the outrageous things he says to other leaders to leak out. Just this past week, we learned more about what he said to the Russian foreign minister (Comey’s a “nut job”) and the Philippine president (“keep up the good work”). Already the German press is exploding over Trump’s whining to EU leaders about Berlin’s “very bad” trade policies. So there is still news to come. My bet is this trip will be remembered for some Trump rant we do not yet know about, and it won’t be good.
Which brings us back to where Trump started — the malarial swamp of his scandals. Remember a week ago? Just minutes after Air Force One was wheels up from Andrews, Trump was slammed by reports that the FBI investigation was zeroing-in on a “person of interest” inside the White House. Trump returns this weekend with the news that it is Jared Kushner. Presidential trips abroad are supposed to project strength, but Trump comes home weaker. If Trump hoped that a week on the road would provide a respite from this mess — or even a reset of his presidency — next week he’ll find more of the same. And regrettably, so will we.
Photo credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images