President Trump is a man of many flaws, but when it comes to foreign policy, one stands out: The guy generally can’t take his mind off his domestic enemies long enough to act as a passable representative for all Americans on the world stage. This flaw was on full display just last week, after Trump provoked a minor international incident out of huffiness that Denmark wouldn’t sell him Greenland on a whim.
Yet as Trump set off for the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, this weekend, some irrepressible optimists might have hoped he’d be able suppress that tendency for a few days. After all, some of Trump’s best days for unalloyed good press have been those times when he stuck to the script at international gatherings—staying out of pointless spats and singing the praises of American freedom and democracy while striking a stern tone with our adversaries that America is not to be trifled with. Sounds easy enough, right?
But alas—there are no gimmes in the Trump White House. And so instead of spending the weekend putting his best foot forward on behalf of the United States, Trump skipped out on important meetings, ran comms for his good buddy Vladimir Putin, and—by his own telling—yukked it up with other world leaders about how nasty American journalists are.
This is, of course, a classic lazy Trump fabrication—the latest in a long line of occasions when the president has put his own words in the mouths of others without really bothering to hide the bit. But it’s worse than usual this time around. Every American should be incensed by the idea of the president sitting around laughing with foreign leaders at the expense of American citizens, to say nothing of bragging about it afterward. Additionally, every leader at the G7 knows that the U.S. president is putting words in their mouths for no other reason than to get in a cheap shot at his media adversaries. That’ll do wonders for our standing.
The tweet was bad enough, but at least that amounted only to really, really bad optics. Trump’s other decisions were worse. When the rest of the group’s leaders convened for a climate change meeting Monday to discuss, among other things, an outbreak of wildfires in the Amazon jungle, Trump skipped out. The White House claimed he missed the meeting because he was busy in meetings with Germany and India—despite the fact that both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it to the meeting just fine.
So apparently Trump couldn’t even be bothered to come up with a plausible excuse for playing hooky.
And the Putin comments—will Donald Trump ever tire of parroting Russian talking points at these shindigs? To sum up: Trump has argued that Russia ought to be reinstated to the G7, which was known as the G8 until Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Asked to comment on why Russia should be reinstated while they still hold that seized territory, Trump deflected and rotated to a subject he’s more comfortable with: Bad-mouthing Barack Obama.
“I’m not blaming him, but a lot of bad things happened with President Putin and President Obama. … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him, right?” Trump told reporters. “It was very embarrassing to him. And he wanted Russia to be out of what was called the G8. And that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.” He went on: “I think it would be better to have Russia inside the tent than outside the tent. Do we live either way—yes, we live either way.”
Put another way: Why shouldn’t Russia be reinstated? The only reason they were kicked out in the first place is because Obama was mad they made him look bad.
The reporter pushed back, pointing out that other countries in the G7 have said they supported Russia’s expulsion not because Russia embarrassed Obama, but because the annexation of Crimea amounted to an illegal military invasion.
“I know you like President Obama,” Trump replied. “It was annexed during President Obama’s term.”
The fact that Trump is more comfortable savaging other U.S. politicians than our actual adversaries isn’t exactly surprising by now, yet the brazenness of it is still sufficient to shock.
This sort of thing is dangerous. Historically, American politicians have refrained from attacking one another on foreign soil. By putting political squabbles and name-calling to the side while mingling with foreign leaders abroad, U.S. leaders send a message to potential adversaries around the world: We may look divided now, but if you decide to mess with us, you’ll be surprised how quickly we can punch back. As far as you’re concerned, we’re not Republicans and Democrats—we’re Americans. Trump, by contrast, goes out of his way to target his political foes even when they have little to do with the subject at hand.
All in all, Trump left the other leaders at the G7 with a singular impression: that he is a flighty and unserious leader who can’t be counted on to unite his nation t in the event of an international crisis. That’s a horrible message to send to our allies, and a worse one to give our enemies. What does it say about our commander in chief that the best we can hope while he remains in office is that other world leaders don’t see him as fully in control?