Where the president once kept European leaders off balance, Europe's shifting landscape now has the Great Disruptor scrambling to recalibrate his approach.
President Donald Trump has always relished throwing European leaders off balance, antagonising allies, embracing insurgents and setting off a frantic contest for how best to deal with him. Now, as Europe undergoes dizzying political changes of its own, it is throwing Trump off balance.
In London for a NATO summit meeting, Trump was subjected to a rare tongue-lashing on trade and terrorism by President Emmanuel Macron of France, who dismissed his attempt to lighten the mood with a curt, "Let's be serious." Earlier in the day, Trump held his own tongue about British politics, heeding Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plea not to barge into Britain's election at the eleventh hour.
For a president who prides himself on being the Great Disruptor, it was a startling turnabout, one that underscored how Europe's shifting landscape — with an ambitious president in France, a lame-duck leader in Germany and a breakaway populist in Britain — has scrambled the calculus for Trump.
For now, at least, Macron has replaced Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany as Trump's chief antagonist on the Continent. The French president's assertion last month that NATO was in a state of "brain death" angered both Trump and Merkel, and has created an improbable, if perhaps fleeting, alignment between those two leaders who spent much of the last three years on opposite poles.
As for Johnson, his most natural ally, Trump bridled almost visibly as he tried to stay out of the election on December 12. "I don't want to complicate it," he said, in a grudging admission that he is so unpopular in Britain that a full-throated endorsement of the prime minister could backfire.
When NATO decided to mark its 70th anniversary with a meeting in London, the goal was to limit the potential for disruption from Trump if it were held in Washington. As luck would have it, the summit wound up falling in the final 10 days of an election campaign in which Trump has been a recurring issue.
"Trump is in an awkward position right now," said Lewis A. Lukens, who served as acting ambassador to Britain in the first months of the Trump presidency. "His instincts are to pull Johnson close, but he will have been told by his team that any intervention would be counterproductive."
Since Trump took office, Europeans have laboured to adjust to his prejudices and preferences. They praised him for his success in calling on NATO members to increase their payments to the alliance, flattered him with invitations to military parades, as Macron once did, and stoically bore his attacks on their trade surpluses with the United States, like Merkel has.
But Europe is changing, too, with Britain seeking to leave, Merkel nearing the end of her tenure, and Macron staking his claim to European leadership with a vision of the future that depends less on the United States. His criticism of NATO is inevitably, if indirectly, a criticism of Trump and his "America First" policy.
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As Europe changes, Trump is finding that he has to recalibrate his approach. With his own re election campaign looming, he also wants credit for what he views as his foreign policy accomplishments, including NATO. On the first day of his trip to London, it made for some remarkable political theater.
The president who once threatened to pull the United States out of NATO suddenly emerged as the alliance's defender. The president who once exchanged a death-grip handshake with Macron sat by wordlessly while his much-younger counterpart lectured him on the need to fight the Islamic State. The president who championed Brexit and hectored Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, about her deal-making skills suddenly had nothing to say about it.
Asked about the British election, Trump resorted to talking about how his campaigning had helped Republican gubernatorial candidates in Kentucky and Louisiana — never mind that both men lost — before implicitly acknowledging that his involvement in Britain would probably not help.
"I love this country," Trump said. "I love a lot of countries, but I'm representing the US They may not like me because I'm representing us, and I represent us strong."
The president has always viewed statecraft as both highly personal and strictly transactional, which makes some experts wary of drawing overly broad conclusions from Trump's early performance in London. His clash with Macron, they said, may reflect as much personal pique about Macron's assertive style as basic disagreements over the future of NATO.
"At the moment, Macron has replaced Merkel as his nemesis," said Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, "but I could see them working together in a few months."
"There is a general alignment of their critiques on NATO," Wright continued. "Macron says NATO should focus on terrorism; Trump says NATO should focus on terrorism and the Middle East. Macron says Russia is not such a big threat; Trump says Russia is not such a big threat."
If anything, he said, other NATO members have worried that the two leaders would ally too closely behind a vision for the alliance that dials back the clock — away from strategic rivals like China and toward the quagmires of the Middle East.
Trump is scheduled to meet Merkel on Wednesday, and history suggests it will be a far less tempestuous encounter than he had with Macron. Still, there is little evidence that he will develop any closer ties with the chancellor in her waning years than he did with May.
Likewise, Trump's newfound discretion on British politics will probably last only until Dec. 12, when Britons go to the polls, if that long. If Johnson is successful in winning a parliamentary majority and takes Britain out of the European Union, he will be more dependent than ever on his relationship with Trump, particularly since he has sold Brexit on the promise that he can cut a lucrative trade deal with the United States.
Johnson's Labour Party opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, is trying to stoke fears that Trump will demand that a Conservative-led government open up Britain's revered National Health Service to US drug companies.
On his last trip to London, Trump declared that "everything will be on the table" in a negotiation, including the NHS, before walking back his comments the following day. On Tuesday, Trump said he did not even know how those rumours got started.
"We have absolutely nothing to do with it, and we wouldn't want to," he said. "If you handed it to us on a silver platter, we'd want nothing to do with it."
Even the ceremonial parts of Trump's schedule attested to a changing of the guard. Before attending a reception given by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday evening, the president and first lady Melania Trump visited Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, at their residence, Clarence House.
Charles has assumed a more central role in the royal family's affairs in the aftermath of the scandal involving Prince Andrew's ties with the disgraced financier, Jeffrey Epstein. Andrew, who had withdrawn from public life, was conspicuously absent from the festivities Tuesday.
"I don't know Prince Andrew, but it's a tough story," said Trump, who was photographed with the prince during his state visit to London earlier this year and at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach estate, nearly two decades ago.
Written by: Mark Landler
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES