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The Trump administration’s War of 1812 and D-Day gaffes, explained

And why these incidents really matter.

trump, trudeau, 1812, history
Trump and Trudeau at the White House.
Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images

The Trump administration is currently mired in two separate controversies involving insults to American allies. And both of them revolve around awkward historical references.

The first controversy was ignited by a phone call between President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in which Trump reportedly invoked the War of 1812 to suggest that Canada might be a national security threat. The second came from a fumbled question at a State Department press conference, in which spokesperson Heather Nauert tried to emphasize the deep ties between the US and Germany by referencing ... the D-Day landings during World War II.

On their own, these two gaffes don’t amount to much. But they come at a time of mounting tension between the United States and its allies, due to Trump’s policies on issues like trade and Iran. For the first time in decades, some allies are asking fundamental questions — like whether they can count on the United States in a time of crisis.

At moments like this, rhetoric really matters. So it’s worth taking a closer look at these Trump administration missteps with an eye toward how they play into the broader and deeper crisis of American foreign policy in the Trump era.

The answer, in short? They’re definitely not good.

Trump insulted Canada

A painting depicting the British burning of the White House.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The insult to Canada happened a bit ago — during a May 25 phone call between Trump and Trudeau — but only became public knowledge on Wednesday, reported by CNN’s Jim Acosta and Paula Newton. The two leaders were discussing the Trump administration’s plan to impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports from the EU, Canada, and Mexico.

Trump used an obscure piece of legislation that gives the president the right to unilaterally impose tariffs for reasons of “national security” to justify this move. This means, however, that he was declaring trade with Canada to be a national security threat of some kind — an absurd idea that the Canadian prime minister, naturally, found offensive. When Trudeau raised this point, per Acosta and Newton, Trump brought up the War of 1812:

Trudeau pressed Trump on how he could justify the tariffs as a “national security” issue. In response, Trump quipped to Trudeau, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” referring to the War of 1812.

Trump is referring to a popular history of the war that seems to be more myth than fact.

The War of 1812 was a conflict between the United States and the British Empire, which at the time included part of what’s now Canada. During the war, US troops invaded Canada and burned down York — part of what’s now Toronto. In retaliation, British troops launched a raid into Washington, DC, and burned both the White House and the Capitol.

The historical record suggests the troops who did the burning did not hail from Canada. The raid’s commander, Gen. Robert Ross, had been fighting in Spain prior to his unit’s reassignment to the war with the United States — which suggests the troops were Europeans, most likely from the British Isles. Even though Canada was part of Britain at the time, it doesn’t make much sense to refer to these soldiers as being “Canadian.”

The questionable history here, though, isn’t really the point. Rather, it’s that Trump is invoking a 200-year-old war to justify a modern-day economic policy that will likely have serious negative consequences for Canadians and Americans alike.

One’s natural impulse on hearing this news — it was certainly mine — is to assume Trump was making a joke. CNN actually asked someone who was listening in on the call whether it was meant in jest. Here’s what they said:

To the degree one can ever take what is said as a joke. The impact on Canada and ultimately on workers in the US won’t be a laughing matter.

But that’s the thing: Even if the president was trying to be funny, his joking was spectacularly ill-timed. He’s threatening to start a trade war with a country whose economy depends heavily on trade with the United States. They don’t want to hear jokes; they want him to actually explain why his country suddenly considers them a national security threat.

It would be bad if Trump didn’t take this seriously. And if Trump actually meant what he said — and he really does think Canada is a national security threat because Britain burned down the White House 200 years ago — well, that’s even worse.

The State Department insulted Germany

To understand the World War II gaffe, you need to understand the current status of Trump’s embattled ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell.

Over the weekend, Grenell gave an interview to Breitbart in which he said he wanted to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe,” and that there was “a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.”

This was widely received as Grenell weighing in on German politics — against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centrist government, and in favor of the right-wing Alternative for Deutschland party.

Grenell later denied that this is what he meant, but the damage was done. The German government demanded he formally explain himself during a visit to the country’s foreign ministry, and a number of major German political figures have called for him to be kicked out of the country.

But when asked for comment on this controversy during a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert actually dug a deeper hole:

Sometimes these things are what ambassadors say. We have a very strong relationship with the government of Germany. Looking back in the history books, today is the 71st anniversary of the speech that announced the Marshall Plan. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day invasion. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany.

Saying “we have a very long history with Germany” because the United States fought against Hitler and the Nazi Party in World War II sounds closer to a veiled insult, and certainly isn’t a positive reflection of the closeness of Germany-US relations.

What’s notable here as well is that Nauert didn’t apologize for Grenell’s comments. She defended and downplayed them but didn’t say they were a mistake. She then, seemingly unintentionally, made things worse by casually bringing up World War II.

If Germany really does kick out Grenell, which is a distinct possibility at this point, it would be a crisis in US-German relations without parallel in the post-Cold War world. You simply don’t kick out the chosen ambassador of a close ally and partner. To do so would convey profound insult — a major rupture in the alliance.

The Trump administration just isn’t taking the damage here as seriously as is warranted.

The real stakes here

The Trump administration has created a crisis of confidence in the United States’ global leadership. Trump’s willingness to call past US agreements like the Iran deal into question and impose economic pain on close allies through tariffs, and his coziness with rival states like Russia, raise serious questions about America’s commitment to its partners.

Alliances are, at base, about perception and trust. They work when two countries have enough faith in each other’s intentions to share intelligence, to coordinate political strategies, and the like. When those things founder, the alliances themselves weaken.

“An alliance may dissolve if its members begin to question whether their partners are genuinely committed to providing assistance,” Harvard scholar Stephen Walt wrote in a 1997 paper. “This problem will be more severe ... when there is a large asymmetry of power among the member-states.”

So as trivial as misplaced War of 1812 and D-Day references are, they point to a bigger problem: the Trump administration’s disinterest in or active hostility toward US alliances. They have demonstrated no interest in reckoning with the consequences of their actions for longtime American partnerships, and haven’t done nearly enough to publicly reassure allies that things are going to keep working.

These two incidents on their own aren’t so bad — but in context, they’re deeply troubling.