Three days after Republicans lost control of the House, President Donald Trump departed Friday for a diplomatic weekend in Paris that will put him face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Democrats with their newfound House majority prepare to explore that relationship more deeply.
Trump campaigned on warming relations with Moscow after things chilled under former President Barack Obama, and kept up that hope for much of his first year in office. But lately, even the 45th president has shown with Putin, expressing doubt that things will get better anytime soon. Trump’s administration has repeatedly implemented sanctions and other tough-on-Russia policies that have further chilled relations.
Trump announced he would not hold his second one-on-one summit with the former KGB agent even though his national security adviser, John Bolton, announced the meeting would take place during a recent visit to Moscow. (The first summit, in July in Finland, did not go so well for Trump, drawing bipartisan scorn back home.)
Trump this week downplayed several official events scheduled as part of ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of World War I Armistice Day hosted by the French government. But incoming Democratic chairs of the House committees with jurisdiction over all things Trump and Russia are doing the opposite.
“We’ll clearly look into [Russian interference], but we’ll also have to talk to the [Department of Justice] people to make sure we don’t step on anything they’re doing,” said New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the expected chair of the House Judiciary Committee come January.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the likely next Intelligence Committee chairman, told CNN that committee’s investigation will continue and said “it will just be that much easier because we can compel people that have been unwilling to voluntarily cooperate.”
With Democrats putting the president on notice about Russia, here are three things to watch as he and Putin head to Paris.
Will they or won’t they? Meet privately in Paris, that is. Trump and his aides tried this week to put the kibosh on any notion that they will.
“Well, as I understand it, we’re having ... a lunch for numerous countries. I’ll be there. I believe President Putin is going to be there. We don’t have anything scheduled. I don’t think we have anything scheduled in Paris,” Trump said during a rowdy Wednesday press conference before quickly adding: “And I’m coming back very quickly.”
U.S. presidents over the decades have sought out allies and adversaries at gatherings of world leaders for quick chats about pressing matters on the sidelines of such events. “There’s nothing that’s right now planned or expected to be planned,” a senior administration official said, “or any set of pull-asides or exchanges.”
Based on Trump’s previous foreign trips, don’t expect him to give Putin the cold shoulder all weekend. But don’t expect them to suddenly agree on very much, either.
Most eyes will be on U.S. and Russian leaders, but astute observers will also watch their host, French President Emmanuel Macron.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been referred to in foreign policy circles as the unofficial “president of Europe.” After Trump, a self-described “nationalist,” was elected in November 2016, many in those circles called her the de facto “leader of the free world,” an unofficial title typically associated with the U.S. president.
But the French leader is unpopular at home, meaning Macron will likely feel pressure to be tough on Trump about a range of issues: an ongoing U.S.-European trade dispute, the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew, and the American leader’s treatment of European allies. Trade is not on the agenda for the Trump-Macron sit-down, but it could come up, the senior administration official said.
“For all the talk of President Macron’s management of his personal relationship with President Trump, it is not clear that the French leader has been able to deliver much thus far,” said Jamie Fly of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which focuses on transatlantic issues.
Ally or loner?
“When Germany is paying 1 percent of GDP for NATO and we are paying 4.3 percent, I don’t like that,” Trump said Oct. 23 in the Oval Office. “I am very proud of our country. ... And I am a nationalist. ... I want to help other countries of the world, but we have to take care of our country.”
Trump’s nationalistic views will offer a juxtaposition to a Sunday morning Champs-Élysées ceremony in which he will participate, honoring allied contributions to the defeat of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Around 70 other world leaders are expected to attend the Paris celebration.
“Policy disagreements between the US and Europe are mounting. … Trump has … pursued a number of actions he likely views as reasserting American power – levying tariffs, insulting European leaders, and labeling the European Union a ‘foe’ — that are ironically, hastening its decline,” analysts Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Rachel Rizzo wrote in a recent white paper for the Center for a New American Security think tank.
“Trump is operating from an assumption that he can bully our allies into correcting imbalances in our relationships and that our bonds will not suffer,” the CNAS analysts wrote. “In an era of strategic competition, operating under these assumptions is wrong and dangerous.”
But don’t expect the WWI-era allied cooperation to alter Trump’s nationalistic philosophy, Fly said.
“European leaders should not expect a chastened president or a significant change to U.S. foreign policy despite the outcome of the [midterm] elections,” he said. “America will continue to be divided and American politics will remain focused on domestic challenges and partisan debates.”