President Donald Trump is heading this week to Europe where he'll struggle to find historic friends of his country he has yet to alienate. As Trump departs Tuesday for Brussels, his record has made him the skunk sauntering into the garden party. This is how it goes with the President.
In one moment he's sowing chaos among America's most important allies. In the next, he's saying Russia's Vladimir Putin is "fine" as he anticipates a cozy private chat with man who waged cyberwar on the 2016 election and threatens to do it again.
In the chaos of the Trump presidency, it's easy to get diverted by his routine efforts to distract and deflect. At the noisy rally last week where he dismissed concerns about Putin, the President also tossed out a casual racist taunt about Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The insult gave the faithful something to cheer and diverted attention from the dubious policies the President has practiced abroad. However, world leaders, especially America's friends, must be keeping score. The tally includes:
- Mounting a sudden trade war with the European Union.
- Diminishing chances for Middle East peace by abruptly moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
- Abandoning a nuclear weapons control agreement with Iran, which European signatories favored.
- Trying to entice France to abandon the European Union.
- Undermining the NATO alliance, which he has called "obsolete"
- Using the last meeting of economic leaders -- the G7 -- to sourly complain about how they each took advantage of the United States.
- Accepting a photo op with Kim Jong Un instead of true reductions in North Korea's nuclear arms.
- Attacking German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government on Twitter.
- Poking Britain about its crime rate while the US struggles with a gun violence problem that is the worst in the world.
- Pushing the G7 to bring Russia back into the fold after it was banished for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
In Belgium, he'll attend a NATO gathering where other members of the alliance might reflect on how often he complains about the cost of the alliance and muses about its usefulness. Previous US presidents have pushed the allies to spend more on defense to support NATO, but only Trump has whined like a child who doesn't understand why his chores are more demanding than his little brother's.
According to a reliable source, he recently complained that NATO is "as bad as NAFTA," the North American trade agreement, which he considers anathema to US interests. Missing from this perspective is NATO's 70-year record of advancing democracy, trade, and security as the most successful alliance in history.
From Brussels it will be on to Britain where ordinary citizens are so upset about the President's manner and policies that he will be greeted by protests at every stop. A giant "angry baby" Trump balloon will float over London, where tens of thousands are expected to march, and a "carnival of resistance" is set for Edinburgh. Protest organizers are delighted by the fact that Trump will not make official public appearances in major population centers, noting that he will "stay hidden away in country estates and castles."
Trump has earned much of Europe's disdain through his attacks on the NATO alliance, which threaten the stability of Western democracies in the face of Russian threats, and his boorish behavior toward leaders such as Merkel. The UN human rights office in Geneva has condemned Trump's policies on the US border with Mexico, where he has separated thousands of children from asylum-seeking parents. And all across Europe, his decision to sit down with Putin has set heads to wagging, especially as Great Britain confronts a new and fatal case of poisoning apparently involving a nerve agent made in Russia.
The Trump/Putin meeting with happen in Finland at the end of his European trip and, shades of Trump/Kim in Singapore, it will include a private session with just the two men and their translators. When he met with Kim, Trump appalled military experts by pledging to stop joint exercises with South Korea. What's to keep him from making similar unilateral concessions to the Russians, who don't like it when NATO has war games in Poland or the Baltics?
Putin, a former KGB agent who has played Trump masterfully, should be delighted to see the President even if Europe is not. (A recent poll put Trump's approval rate in Europe at 23%.)
A pariah from the day he ordered the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin is a ruthless autocrat whose opponents wind up dead. Most recently he has begun to mouth conspiracy theories about the so-called "Deep State" and "Fake News" that supposedly threaten Trump. It seems Putin has noted the President's insecurities and is manipulating him by signaling that he agrees with Trump's nonsense.
Whether Putin is rescuing the bloody dictator Assad in Syria or disrupting elections in the West, he's transgressive in a way that should make Trump fearful. Yet the President's kindness toward the Russians had been persistent and peculiar. Reluctant to call out Putin in strong terms, he has done little to organize a defense against future election meddling.
Consider the President's decision to meet privately with the Russian strong man, and it's easy to imagine the two men hatching a plan for mutual support that would betray the Western alliance that America has led since the start of the Cold War. No matter what they get up to, the one thing we do know is that the truth of what they say to each other may never be known.
According to some sources, Russia is already seeking to disrupt the 2018 elections. All seems to be working according to Putin's plan, and as the President continues to put himself, if not America, first, it'll be up to others to stop him.