It was all smiles and handshakes Monday afternoon when French President Emmanuel Macron arrived outside the West Wing. But Republican and Democratic lawmakers are expected to intently watch the youthful European leader’s talks with President Donald Trump.
Macron’s polished black limousine pulled into the White House’s West Wing entrance with a spring breeze perfectly pitching the flags of each country affixed to his hood. When the 40-year-old French president greeted his 71-year-old political alter ego, the personal bond they both often laud was on public display.
But behind closed doors, their talks will focus on a number of issues on which there is ample distance between them — and with crucial deadlines looming.
The French leader arrived for a three-day Washington visit that will include private meetings and meals during the first two days. By the time Macron takes his place in the House chamber Wednesday morning to address a joint meeting, it should be clear whether he has succeeded in bringing Trump closer to his — and other European leaders’ — stances on issues such as the Iran nuclear accord, the United States’ next moves in Syria, and relief from American steel and aluminum tariffs.
For the White House, senior officials have signaled that Macron’s visit is largely symbolic — an opportunity for the two longtime allies to celebrate their past and reaffirm their partnership going forward. But for Macron, there is much on the line as he tries to convince Trump — and his supporters on Capitol Hill — to move in his direction.
It is unlikely the two leaders “will come to closure, or a full-detailed agreement on” that and other matters next week, a senior administration official said Friday.
Dealing with Iran
A major topic will be a fast-approaching May 12 deadline for France, the United Kingdom and Germany to present Trump with a plan addressing his concerns about the Iran nuclear deal. The president asked the so-called E3 to find ways to strengthen parts of the pact and address other issues, such as Tehran’s activities across the Middle East.
“There is no doubt about it, the Iran deal will be atop the list of things Congress is watching because the French are coming with the position of ‘We have many of the same goals,’” said Jeff Lightfoot of the Atlantic Council. “The French feel like no matter how many concessions the [European Union] makes, Trump may still pull out of the deal.”
Lightfoot expects the French president’s message will be: “We have come a long way, we want to work together on Iran’s missile program, on its nuclear capabilities, but we just don’t see a way to deal with this outside of the nuclear accord.”
Many Republican lawmakers have supported Trump’s calls to toughen or withdraw the United States from that pact, which was negotiated by the Obama administration and other world powers.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, warned the Trump administration that a U.S. exit from the pact could lead to its complete demise. “If the benefits of the deal for Iran start to diminish, then there is no reason for Iran to remain in the deal, because it’s not acceptable for us to have a one-sided agreement,” he said in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” that aired Sunday.
But no announcements are expected until closer to the May 12 deadline, the senior administration official said, adding that it is “hard to say what level of detail” Trump and his French counterpart will get into this week.
Macron is expected to focus at much length on the Iran deal when he addresses Congress on Wednesday. Doing so would allow “him to reach not only the legislators who passed U.S. sanctions on Iran, but to gain wider public recognition of France’s (and Europe’s) position,” Jeffrey Rathke and Max Shafron of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a blog post Monday for the nonpartisan think tank.
On Syria, the senior official made clear Trump wants to hear about Macron’s long-term vision for the conflict-torn country, including France’s role on the ground.
French and British troops joined the United States in firing 105 cruise missiles at Syrian government targets earlier this month to punish it for a new chemical weapons attack. “I’m confident they will discuss potential French contributions in the campaign, and then we’ll see where it goes from there,” the senior official said.
Trump has expressed a preference to remove all U.S. troops from Syria but, for now, has been talked out of such a move by some of his senior national security lieutenants and allies like Macron. Though aides reiterated Monday that Syria will be a prime topic, the senior official on Friday said whatever Trump decides is “not completely dependent on what Macron says in this meeting.”
Even Republican lawmakers, however, will be watching to learn whether Trump defines his long-term plan to Macron. “Going forward, the United States must link military operations to a definitive strategy that has public support,” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole wrote in a recent op-ed.
Lightfoot of the Atlantic Council said Congress will also be listening close for any signals from the leaders about a May 1 deadline Trump gave EU leaders to negotiate a permanent waiver to his steel and aluminum tariffs, as well as if the French president can cool trade tensions among the world’s largest economies.
“I don’t think Congress wants a trade war with China. That would hit their districts and states tremendously hard,” Lightfoot said. “Any movement or developments on that would be a very big deal for Congress.”
GOP Sen. Ben Sasse, whose agriculture-dependent home state of Nebraska is among many that would be hit hard by proposed Chinese counter-tariffs, said earlier this month a trade war would be “nuts.”
Sasse has warned that Trump “has no actual plan to win [a trade war] right now,” adding that “he’s threatening to light American agriculture on fire.”
The Macron-Trump relationship diverges along more than just their age difference. Macron has a more global focus, while Trump governs based on his “America first” philosophy.
But lawmakers might be disappointed if they’re seeking clarity. The senior administration official signaled Friday the visit will largely be about symbolism.
“There are aspects of the visit … both sides will want to celebrate: the 100th anniversary … of the end of World War I,” as well as “a very deep and a very old relationship that goes all the way back to the [American] founding,” the official said.
While no major developments or announcements are expected on contentious matters, the official said “some things are best discussed face to face.”
But before the two leaders got in the same room for those discussions, things were a bit awkward at a press briefing Monday.
“I feel very confident that we have the best negotiator at the table,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. When pressed on whether she was saying Macron is a weak negotiator, she pushed back.
“That’s not what I said. I said that we have a great negotiator at the table,” Sanders said. “I certainly was not commenting on President Macron’s abilities.”
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