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The controversies of Trump’s Paris trip, explained

A fiery Macron speech, a missed WWI memorial, and a Putin thumbs-up for Trump.

Benoit Tessier/AFP/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

President Donald Trump spent barely two days in France, but his brief visit revealed the widening rift between the United States and its Western allies.

The president traveled to Paris on Friday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I — and because he was upset that he couldn’t have his own military parade. By Sunday, he had departed, just in time to miss the inaugural Paris Peace Forum, a three-day event promoting international cooperation and multilateralism.

The forum, which was hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, represents an antidote to rising nationalism in the West and around the world and a not-so-subtle rebuke of the kind of “America First” politics Trump espouses. But the president’s decision to blow off the event was merely the bookend to a rocky foreign visit.

Among other things, Trump attacked Macron on Twitter ahead of their meeting. And Macron used his WWI Armistice Day commemoration speech to denounce nationalism, with Trump looking on. Trump skipped a visit to a World War I battlefield because of bad weather, sending other officials in his place. He also seemed to express enthusiasm for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to drive a wedge between the US and Europe.

Given Trump’s somewhat icy interactions with Macron, a picture of Trump beaming at Putin — while Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stare back, stone-faced — was a stark visual reminder of the schisms among allies.

Trump’s whirlwind trip to Paris should have followed a simple playbook: meeting with Macron, solemn remembrance and reflection, and brief remarks. Instead, Trump’s trip abroad highlighted how America’s partnerships are weakening under his leadership.

The United States didn’t enter WWI — the “war to end all war” — until conflict had been raging for years, but it wrenched America out of its traditional isolationism and marked its ascendance as a world power. A century later, Trump has set the United States on a markedly different course, pulling inward and rejecting international cooperation. The president’s trip to Paris made that clear.

A bilateral bromance sours, and the rift with Europe grows

At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, Macron was one of the few Western leaders Trump seemed to personally like, weird handshakes aside.

The French president recognized Trump’s transactional style, and sought to flatter and impress him during one-on-one visits. Macron wasn’t always successful in getting through to Trump — the president announced he would withdraw from the Paris climate accord and Iran deal, despite Macron’s entreaties — but the two seemed to get along.

But Macron has also carefully, and very publicly, distanced himself from Trump’s brand of isolationist politics.

He has criticized Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw from the Paris climate deal, and his United Nations General Assembly speech in September explicitly embraced the multilateralism that Trump rejects. Macron has also used the US’s retreat from the world stage as an opportunity to anoint France the defender of Western values.

The tensions between Trump and Macron were apparent before the two even met face to face this weekend. Ahead of their sit-down, Trump blasted Macron for a comment he had made to the press earlier in the week. Macron had expressed support for a European army to counter the rise of Russia and China, one that would help wean European countries off their dependence on the US.

Trump responded to Macron’s comments en route to his meeting with the French president, calling the proposal “very insulting.”

However, the two seemed to have smoothed things out ahead of their bilateral meeting, with Macron telling reporters during a photo op with Trump: “We need a much better burden-sharing in NATO. My proposals on European defense are consistent with that.”

Trump responded that “we want to help Europe but it has to be fair.”

But the show for the cameras seemed just that — a show. During Macron’s address on Sunday, the official anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI, he sharply and forcibly denounced nationalism, calling it a “betrayal of patriotism.” He also warned that “giving in to the fascination for withdrawal, isolationism, violence, and domination would be a grave error.”

Macron didn’t mention Trump by name, but it was a clear reprimand of the US president’s preferred foreign policy approach.

According to NBC News Trump “appeared to grimace while offering muted and delayed applause” after Macron’s remarks. He later thanked Macron on Twitter, and praised the “beautiful ceremony.” He didn’t address the topic of Macron’s speech directly.

Later that day, Macron presided over the opening of the first annual Paris Peace Forum. The three-day event was devised to bring together heads of state, local governments, international organizations, and civil society and religious groups to talk about how to revive collective governance and international cooperation at a time “when global challenges have never been so pressing.” It’s a “Davos of democracy,” French officials told France24.

Trump, however, chose not to attend the forum — which undoubtedly strengthened the message that Macron was trying to send.

Trump cancels WWI memorial visit because rain

Trump really loved the Bastille Day military parade when he visited France in July — so much so that he wanted to host his own in Washington, DC. The high cost of the event stymied his plans, so he decided to travel to Paris this weekend instead.

But if Trump expected a “celebration” in Paris, he didn’t exactly get it. The World War I commemoration was a somber affair, a reflection on a continent ravaged by war and an unsteady peace that brought it back into conflict two decades later.

Trump also didn’t make it to some of the headlining events. On Saturday, the White House announced that Trump’s trip to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial was canceled “due to scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather.”

It was raining, and Marine One had been grounded because of poor visibility. But as critics pointed out, the cemetery — where more than 2,000 US troops are buried — is just 60 miles from Paris.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump didn’t go by motorcade because he “did not want to cause that kind of unexpected disruption to the city and its people.” Instead, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford attended in Trump’s place.

Both served in the Marine Corps, and Aisne-Marne holds a special significance for that branch of the armed forces, as the Washington Post pointed out:

A brigade of Marines joined two Army divisions in the closing months of the war and fought brutal hand-to-hand combat in the wood, occasionally contending with swirling poison gas. The Germans sent numerous waves in a failed attempt to dislodge the Marines during the battle, which lasted nearly a month.

Though Trump didn’t make it to the memorial, he did tweet this picture celebrating the Marine Corps’ 243rd birthday (which was also on Saturday) and said he had “very productive” meetings and calls with leaders, though he didn’t provide specifics.

Later, he received criticism at home and abroad for his decision.

“President @realDonaldTrump a no-show because of raindrops? Those veterans the president didn’t bother to honor fought in the rain, in the mud, in the snow - & many died in trenches for the cause of freedom,” former Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted. “Rain didn’t stop them & it shouldn’t have stopped an American president.”

British Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, who also happens to be Winston Churchill’s grandson, tweeted that the “pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen.”

On Sunday, Trump did manage to visit Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial outside of Paris (even in spite of the rain) and delivered remarks honoring the united efforts of France and the US in WWI. “It is our duty to preserve the civilization they defended, and to protect the peace they so nobly gave their lives to secure one century ago,” he said.

However, his absence from the memorial on Saturday seemed to overshadow this visit. Even the French army took a shot. “There is rain, but it does not matter,” they wrote in a tweet on Monday that was translated by the Washington Post. “We remain motivated.”

Trump’s Paris visit spotlights America’s isolation

While the US president was not visiting the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery on Saturday, Merkel and Macron attended an event together. Macron posted an image of the two of them, with the caption “Unis” — “United.”

Both leaders have both publicly fought back against the tide of nationalism and have emerged as moral leaders in the Western world — despite facing domestic political setbacks.

Their approach stands in deep contrast to Trump, who, though in Paris with dozens of world leaders, stood out as a man alone. He arrived solo to the Armistice Day celebration on Sunday, and though it’s possible security might have been an issue, the other world leaders took buses together.

Interestingly, another person who conspicuously showed up alone was Russian President Vladimir Putin. There had been a lot of speculation that Trump and Putin might try to meet on the sidelines of Paris — their first in-person follow-up to the Helsinki summit in July. But Trump said ahead of the trip that he “probably” wouldn’t be meeting with Putin, as the schedule and venue wouldn’t allow it.

The White House later confirmed that Trump met with Putin, along with Macron, Merkel, and others, during a working lunch where they discussed a variety of issues, including Syria, trade, and “the situation in Saudi Arabia.”

The Kremlin said the two leaders were able to have a brief exchange during the lunch, per Russian state-run television. But it turns out the French may have prevented the two from really meeting up. According to the Guardian, French officials switched the seating arrangements so Trump wasn’t sitting next to Putin, so the two couldn’t really have a private chat. (The two instead sat across from each other.)

A Kremlin spokesperson also said that the French government had pressured Trump and Putin to skip a meeting while they were in Paris.

This might just be Russia trying to play spoiler and spin a narrative that Putin would very much like to advance: that of a US president eager to meet with Russia, but with America’s traditional allies trying desperately to keep them apart.

Even so, the mutual affection between Trump and Putin was evident. Trump visibly grinned when Putin arrived — and Putin offered him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

World leaders have to be polite and give the occasional uncomfortable handshake at these types of ceremonies. But Trump’s reception of Putin was noticeably warm when compared to the tension between him and Macron and others. It’s also worth pointing out that the friendly greeting came after the midterm elections in which Russia continued its meddling and as the State Department, on Sunday, condemned of Russia for its “sham” elections in eastern Ukraine.

But in the end, even Putin stuck around for Macron’s Paris Peace Forum — while Trump returned home.

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