As President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May arrived at the lip of the stairs leading to their lecterns, the US President took his British counterpart’s hand and helped her down the four short steps to the stage.
Just a day earlier, it seemed as if Trump would sooner shove May off a much steeper metaphorical ledge.
Trump provided the proverbial push in an interview Thursday that dominated British news, criticizing May’s handling of Brexit negotiations and warning that her current plan would “kill” the possibility of a US-UK free trade deal – the very issue that had May’s government teetering on the brink of collapse.
But at the news conference less than 24 hours removed from that interview, Trump took pains to repeatedly shower May with praise and characterized the US-UK relationship as “the highest level of special.” On Brexit, he said, “Whatever you do is OK with me.”
The about-face and contradictory statements were just the latest instance of Trump plunging the world into a reality-bending twilight zone shaped by his own actions and statements over the course of his European trip this week. They leave an open question as to which reality Trump will subscribe to as he holds his Monday summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. His performance so far also will leave Putin – and the American public – wondering what they can believe.
Just days earlier in Brussels, Trump offered startlingly cutting criticism of one of the closest US allies – accusing Germany of being “a captive of Russia” – before insisting hours later that he has “a very, very good relationship with (German Chancellor Angela Merkel)” and a “tremendous relationship with Germany.”
The truth revealed itself in the stiff body language between the two leaders, who did not shake hands for the cameras and appeared miles apart even as they sat just feet from each other.
But the President’s tour-de-grace came during his suddenly announced solo news conference at the end of the NATO summit that sent reporters scrambling to make it into the room on time and wondering whether Trump would announce the US was leaving NATO after reports suggested he had threatened to do so earlier in the day.
Instead, Trump took to his lectern in the darkly lit room to proclaim that all NATO allies had “agreed to substantially up their commitment” to defense spending “at levels that they’ve never thought of before.” Despite his insulting and critical comments of close US allies during the summit and his private threats, Trump insisted the alliance was “very unified, very strong.”
“No problem, right?” Trump said.
But none of those claims passed muster. As the French President Emmanuel Macron, who maintains one of the most genial personal relationships with Trump of any world leader, made clear soon after Trump’s news conference, NATO allies did nothing more than recommit themselves to the previously agreed 2% of GDP defense spending by 2024.
“The communique is clear,” Macron said. “It reaffirms a commitment to 2% in 2024. That is all.”
As for the unity of the alliance, the words and images Trump put out to the world signaled anything but the united front lawmakers in Washington and US allies abroad had hoped the US and NATO would project ahead of Trump’s summit with Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
After his blistering criticism of Germany, he and Merkel – heads of the largest economies in the alliance – could not have found themselves further apart as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg led the group of world leaders through the cavernous lobby of the alliance headquarters. Merkel found herself in the front, while Trump straggled behind.
Then there was Trump’s late arrival for NATO’s second day that only amplified the sense of unease that still lingered in the building after his first day. Just as he had during his similarly tense attendance at the G7 summit in Quebec last month, Trump arrived about 30 minutes late for a working session with his counterparts, confidently striding through the entrance hall were cameras could capture his arrival.
But which version of reality will Trump project as he meets with Putin in Helsinki?
Will it be the one of Trump fracturing the alliance that is the strongest bulwark against Russian aggression and undermining his closest counterparts? Or will it be the other version, in which the NATO alliance has been strengthened and the partnership between the US and its close allies across the Atlantic stand united before Putin?
The US and NATO allies did pledge in Brussels to bolster their defense and deterrence capabilities as a bulwark against Putin – a notable achievement. NATO allies have also increased defense spending by $33 billion in the last year, which led Trump to ask Friday: “Do you think Putin’s happy about that?”
But it’s Trump’s version of reality on another topic that may come to define his meeting with Putin.
‘Eyes wide open’
US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman has already asserted that Trump will need to “go in with eyes wide open” when he meets with Putin and make “a sober assessment of the root causes of our problems.”
“So what are the underlying causes of past crises?” Huntsman told reporters last week. “Dialogue on the true state of the relationship is what is needed.”
Trump’s assessment of the impediments to improving US-Russia relations may not jive with the US government’s.
“We do have a political problem where you know in the United States we have this stupidity going on. Pure stupidity,” Trump said in an apparent reference to the special counsel’s investigation stemming from Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the surrounding partisanship. “It makes it very hard to do something with Russia. Anything you do, it’s always going to be, ‘Oh, Russia, he loves Russia.’ ”
Trump and Putin have displayed a chummy chemistry in their first meetings and Putin’s approach to Trump could be key to the summit’s outcome.
The US President has repeatedly shown that flattery, praise and a welcoming atmosphere are the fastest ways to his heart. His comments about May came as he prepared to head to London, where planned protests and criticism from London’s mayor awaited his arrival.
But after May rolled out the red carpet and many of the trappings of an official state visit – even though it was not one – and offered glowing remarks about Trump and the US-UK relationship during a gala dinner in his honor, the President appeared to change his tune. A source with knowledge of the discussions told CNN’s Michelle Kosinski that Trump’s “eyes lit up” during May’s speech and said the two “never bonded better.”
The next morning, after his comments broke, Trump did the unthinkable and offered May an apology.
But Merkel – who is known for her awfully revealing poker face – is still waiting.