From the Baby Trump balloon to Putin’s political football, what a week of metaphors it’s been. As Donald Trump prepares to head home after three variously acrimonious, embarrassing and shocking visits to meet foreign counterparts, he will return to a country struggling to make sense of what he’s spent his time abroad doing.
Coming hot on the heels of a fractious NATO summit in Brussels, it was inevitable that Trump’s scaled-down visit to the UK would be fraught with diplomatic challenge. The timing for his counterpart and host, Theresa May, could scarcely have been worse, throwing into relief as it did her own dire political problems. It was a far cry from the heady days of January 2017, when May scored what was momentarily considered a diplomatic coup when she became the first foreign leader to secure a meeting with Trump at the White House. Back then, prospects for a post-Brexit trade deal seemed hopeful; some even imagined that the real estate developer and reality TV star might evolve from braggadocious campaigner to world statesman. To date, neither vision has materialised, and Trump’s conduct on his UK visit proved it.
The president’s unguarded comments on Brexit in an interview with The Sun – published the night before his formal press conference with May – wrongfooted the prime minister at an already dicey moment. But she wasn’t the only one to be landed in trouble: as Trump headed to meet the Queen, news broke that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller planned to indict 12 Russian intelligence officers for interference in the 2016 election campaign.
As is his way, Trump blamed the Obama administration for not “doing something” about the meddling, including the hacking of Democratic party emails (which Trump himself invited on the campaign trail). And then, just as a murder investigation got underway to establish how a British citizen was lethally exposed to Russian-manufactured nerve agent Novichok, Trump headed to Helsinki to meet Vladimir Putin.
The best of friends
Of all the events on Trump’s whistle-stop itinerary, it was Helsinki that carried the most political weight. Bizarrely, there was no formal agenda to guide Trump, a political novice, as he met with Putin, a statesman of 18 years and former KGB intelligence officer. Observers voiced concerns that Trump’s inexperience and lack of historical knowledge would put him at a disadvantage when discussing complex and consequential issues such as nuclear proliferation, NATO, Syria and other possible matters on the improvised agenda.
Not that Trump didn’t do all he could to make things easy for Putin in advance. The Russian president will have noted with some satisfaction Trump’s apparent efforts to undermine his country’s transatlantic alliance, not least by castigating NATO allies for their inadequate defence spending and informing the German Chancellor that her country was “totally controlled” by Russia.
But then came the press conference the two held after their meeting, which took things to strange new heights. Asked about the always hot topic of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump declared that Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion was “a disaster for our country” – thereby throwing his lot in with Russia rather than aligning himself with his own country’s intelligence agencies.
This was too much even for many of Trump’s usually cowed Republican comrades. Former CIA Director John Brennan, no liberal snowflake, called Trump’s performance “nothing short of treasonous”. An especially bold condemnation came from Trump’s Republican comrade and speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan:
There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world. That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.
From the president’s own perspective, he may have been right when he predicted that the Putin meeting would be “the easiest” of the week. Just as May made little or no effort to push back against the disruptive Trump agenda when obliged to conduct a press conference with him, so Trump put up no fight in Helsinki; instead, he yielded Putin further ground as the Mueller probe is directly challenged and the international order blatantly undermined.
Still, even if political resistance is in short supply, public feeling is another matter. In the UK, hundreds of thousands of protesters greeted the notional leader of the free world with a “carnival of resistance”. Even as Trump suggested that the UK-US relationship was at the “highest level of special”, a fleet of “babysitters” inflated a six-metre high balloon in the shape of a baby Trump wearing a nappy. In a week of geopolitical turmoil and stupefying doublespeak, perhaps this was the sanest development yet.