Politics

Analysis: Trump Wanted a Fight. He Found One — With His Allies

Lawmakers are split over president’s tough-love approach for Europe, Canada

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron had a warm state visit in April. But since, relations have soured after Trump slapped  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump was looking for a brawl with some of America’s closest allies Thursday morning. By evening, he had found — no, provoked — one. And lawmakers are split on his tough-love approach.

“Fight.”

“Quarrel.”

Those were some of the descriptions of the president’s trade dispute with Europe, Canada and Mexico used by Trump and senior White House officials before he left Friday morning — nearly an hour later than scheduled — for a suddenly awkward G-7 summit in Canada.

Trump went so far as calling Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “indignant” and lobbed threats about imposing new import fees on America’s northern neighbor and European allies. He even criticized Trudeau’s invoking of Canada’s longstanding military alliances with the United States to push back on Trump’s designation of Canadian steel and aluminum as a national security threat.

“They’re trying to act like, ‘Well, we fought with you in the war.’” he said. “They don’t mention the fact they have trade barriers against our farmers. They don’t mention the fact that they’re charging almost 300 percent tariffs.”

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Two White House officials did not dispute the notion that their boss was spoiling for a conflict when he arrives Friday afternoon at what likely will be a tense G-7 meeting in Quebec, Canada.

“I think he’s already got a fight on his hands,” Senate Majority WhipJohn Cornyn of Texas said Thursday.

Fittingly, the U.S. president let the world know he was ready for a tariffs tussle with his country’s oldest allies via a tweet. “Getting ready to go to the G-7 in Canada to fight for our country on Trade,” Trump wrote Thursday morning.

That followed what his chief economic adviser, Lawrence Kudlow, said on Wednesday: “President Trump is very clear with respect to his trade reform efforts that we will do what is necessary to protect the United States, its businesses, and its workforce. ... And people should recognize how serious he is in that respect.”

Kudlow called the administration’s trade conflict with its allies a “family quarrel” and did nothing to dispute a reporter’s description of U.S. relations with the EU and Canada as “at a low point.”

Trump’s Thursday morning tweet did not go unnoticed in Ottawa and Paris, with Trudeau and Macron appearing eager to join the “fight” the U.S. leader mentioned in his tweet.

“The American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be,” Macron tweeted. “Because these 6 countries represent values, they represent an economic market which has the weight of history behind it and which is now a true international force.”

The “fight” was on, with Trump escalating the “quarrel” with a series of harsh tweets.

“Please tell Prime Minister Trudeau and President Macron that they are charging the U.S. massive tariffs and create non-monetary barriers,” he wrote in one, with this tongue-in-cheek line: “Look forward to seeing them tomorrow.”

Two hours later came this threat to the EU and Canada: “Take down your tariffs & barriers or we will more than match you!” The president was back at it early Friday morning, signaling the U.S. and its allies might be unable to solve the trade dispute he spawned with his steel and aluminum tariffs: “Looking forward to straightening out unfair Trade Deals with the G-7 countries. If it doesn’t happen, we come out even better!”

If Trump was looking to pick a fight, he succeeded. Trudeau, flanked by Macron, said during a press conference “we are going to defend our industries and our workers” and “show the U.S. president that his unacceptable actions are hurting his own citizens.”

All the while, the occupant of the White House was dangling carrots at longtime U.S. adversaries.

Trump’s Thursday harsh words and Twitter threats toward America’s allies came just a few hours after he floated security assurances, economic aid and even a White House invitation for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — a hard-line dictator who Human Rights Watch says runs “one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world.”

On Friday, Trump called for Russia to be readmitted to the G-7, telling reporters it was a mistake to push Moscow out of the former G-8. “Russia should be in this meeting. Why are we having this meeting without Russia being in the meeting?” he said during an impromptu mini-press conference on the White House’s South Lawn as Marine One idled nearby. “I would recommend — and it’s up to them — Russia should be in the meeting. You know, whether you like it or not … we have a world to run. … We should have Russia at the negotiating table.”

Congressional Democrats were ready to remind the president why Russia was kicked out of the group. 

“The G8 became the G7 precisely because of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the war Russia is waging in eastern Ukraine. Since then, Putin has pressed ahead with his destructive efforts to undermine western unity. With Donald Trump’s reckless trade policy and affinity for Moscow, the American President sadly appears to be Mr. Putin’s willing partner,” House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot L. Engel of New York said in a statement.

That wasn’t the American leader’s only shoutout for Russia on Friday morning amid his tensions with Western leaders - despite the ongoing special counsel probe of possible Moscow-Trump campaign coordination and potential presidential obstruction of justice. 

Trump arrives in Quebec more the agitator-in-chief than diplomat-in-chief. And, by all accounts, that’s just how he wants it.

“We’re going to deal with the very unfair trade practices,” he told reporters minutes before heading off on a trip that will also take him to Singapore for a nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He also threatened anew to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if Canada and Mexico won’t bend to his demands.

And on Thursday night, the White House announced Trump would skip most of the Saturday portion of the G-7 summit. Once he departs, a mid-level White House aide, deputy assistant to the president for international economic affairs Everett Eissenstat, will assume the lead spot in the U.S. delegation. That amounts to a double slight to the summit’s host, Trudeau.

The president’s instinct to “fight” and “quarrel” with America’s closest allies unnerves Republican and Democratic members. While some Republicans defended his “fight” tweet, other GOP senators this week signed on to legislation that would curtail Trump’s trade powers.

“I think whatever he does, he does to play to his base. I just hope, for the benefit of the country, he listens to the experts. This isn’t a business negotiation, this is about world peace and a lot of issues that are out there,” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., said Thursday.

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“We’ve had great relationships. And we need to be there as a team, we can’t do everything alone,” said Ruppersberger, a former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s about relationships and trust. … He’s got to stop playing to the media and playing to what he feels is his base.”

Asked if he believes Trump has eroded trust with Europe and Canada, Ruppersberger replied: “Oh, no question. They have concerns. I know, because I’m involved in the national security world.” But he said what worries him most as Trump heads off for a “quarrel” with the G-7 and an unpredictable face-to-face negotiation with Kim is “Trump is Trump — is he really capable of rebuilding that trust?”

But some members of Trump’s party see it differently. Asked if he worries the president is being too hard on the allies, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, replied: “No. I think he’s willing to make the case that America is not going to be taken advantage of.”

Cornyn, who has access to sensitive information about America’s dealing with friends and foes via his Senate Intelligence Committee seat, offered his own Trump-is-Trump assessment of the president’s demeanor ahead of the double dip of diplomacy.

“It doesn’t bother me that he’s fighting for the United States. They’re certainly fighting for their countries,” Cornyn said. “But I think we’ve come to learn this is the way the president operates. He likes to make a strong statement and then negotiate a settlement.”

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