Trump returns to impeachment fight after NATO clash

The Hill 12 hours ago

clashed with foreign counterparts at a two-day NATO summit in London this week that underscored his distance from other world leaders at a time when he faces an impeachment threat at home.

Trump, known for being a disruptive force at global gatherings, kicked off the meetings by criticizing and eviscerating House Democrats for pursuing an impeachment inquiry the White House says is designed solely to damage his political prospects.

But in a shift from previous gatherings, world leaders did not seek to appease the president or tiptoe around potential conflicts. Instead, they appeared more eager to challenge and criticize Trump, both in public and in private.

Macron repeatedly pushed back against Trump’s comments during a one-on-one meeting Tuesday, and video surfaced later that night of Canadian Prime Minister gossiping about the president's conduct. That prompted Trump to lash out and call the leader “two-faced.”

Trump ended the trip on Wednesday by canceling a previously scheduled press conference.

Strategists don’t expect the spats will influence voters, and some of the president’s supporters even embraced the Trudeau video as validation of Trump’s outsider persona.

Doug Heye, former communications director at the Republican National Committee, said the meeting isn't likely to move the needle politically back home.

“If foreign policy is your key concern as a voter, that could play a role,” Heye said. “But there aren’t a lot of voters where that is the case.”

“It wasn’t a positive summit, but I just don’t see any domestic impact,” Heye said.

While the meeting was punctuated by some tumultuous moments, leaders ended up signing a joint declaration addressing Russian aggression, terrorism and communications security. Trump also defended NATO, something experts viewed as a positive given the president’s past criticism of the 70-year-old military alliance.

“It wasn’t groundbreaking, but then again it wasn’t a disaster,” said Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. “Considering all the friction going into the meeting, I think the fact they were able to agree to a declaration was a positive.”

Still, Trudeau’s remarks highlighted frustrations among foreign leaders over Trump’s unpredictability, said Rachel Ellehuus, a NATO and Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The prime minister was captured on video commenting on Trump’s tardiness and later seemed to mock Trump for catching his team off guard with his public remarks.

“I think the comments in that conversation reflect a level of frustration among allies about the president’s unpredictability,” said Ellehuus. “It’s a pattern. And I think it hurts our credibility and allies’ willingness to follow us.”

Perhaps the most notable exchange came when Trump sat down with Macron on Tuesday. The French president, seeking to fill a centrist leadership void in Europe, had lamented days earlier that NATO was experiencing “brain death,” putting Trump in the unfamiliar position of defending the alliance.

The two leaders clashed throughout a 40-minute Q&A on topics including Turkey, tariffs and ISIS fighters, with Macron urging Trump to “be serious” after he offered to give France imprisoned insurgent fighters.

“What started out as a good relationship, where I think Macron smartly tried to charm the president, I don’t think that worked,” said Ellehuus, who called Macron an “opportunist.”

“You’re seeing a clash between two very strong personalities,” she added.

Experts and strategists agreed that Trump was able to secure some wins during the summit.

Trump marketed an increase in defense spending by NATO member countries as a foreign policy achievement that followed a sustained pressure campaign by his administration.

“If you look at NATO today compared to NATO three years ago when I started, we’ve built up NATO and [Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg will tell you it was because of Trump,” the president said at his final event Wednesday before departing for Washington.

Trump also kept away from politics in the United Kingdom during the two-day swing, which came days before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces key parliamentary elections.

Trump, who has made no secret of his affection for Johnson and disdain for rival Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, met privately with Johnson on Tuesday evening but did not open the meeting up to press.

“My view is the thing wasn’t a total disaster, so it was a success, because we expect him to just totally disrupt and treat allies as if they’re not our friends and partners,” said Jim Goldgeier, a NATO expert at the Brookings Institution. 

But the praise for increased defense spending, as well as the progress made by NATO on various fronts, was overshadowed at times by Trump’s focus on the impeachment proceedings taking place on Capitol Hill.

The White House had complained prior to the president’s NATO trip that Democrats weren’t abiding by the long-held principle that politics stops at the water's edge by holding an impeachment hearing while the president was overseas on official business.

But Trump was equally willing to engage in domestic politics while abroad. He was asked about impeachment at three separate meetings with foreign leaders and seized on each opportunity to hammer Democrats.

"To do it on a day like this, where we're in London with some of the most powerful countries in the world having a very important NATO meeting, and it just happened to be scheduled ... on this day, it's really, honestly it's a disgrace," Trump said during Wednesday’s meeting with the Italian prime minister, which took place at the same time as the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing.

"These people, you almost question whether or not they love our country,” he said of Democrats.

Goldgeier called it unreasonable to expect a dated idea like halting politics while a president is abroad to hold in such a polarized political atmosphere.

Still, he cast doubt on the specter of impeachment influencing how foreign leaders interact with Trump, arguing there’s little doubt the Senate would ultimately acquit the president.

“So in that sense, there’s not a lot of uncertainty about the process,” Goldgeier said. “I don’t think it really affects the way other leaders think about him or his standing.”

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