David Jackson and John Fritze
Published 6: 17 AM EST Dec 5, 2019
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and his aides saw this week’s NATO meeting as a chance to showcase his leadership on the World stage and rise above the political fray while “crazy” Democrats back in Washington sought to impeach him.
It didn’t work out quite that way.
Instead, Trump was mocked by some World leaders in a moment captured on video, fought openly with others, misstated U.S. policy on Iran and canceled a highly anticipated news conference, all obscuring his message on global leadership, amplifying his problems back home and giving political ammunition to his critics.
“President Trump’s big campaign line is that the rest of the World is laughing at American leadership under Obama,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Obama adviser on national security. “In this trip, the laughter at him was the headline, and he didn’t manage to create an alternative set-piece for his base.”
As the NATO conference devolved into name calling, Trump continued to bring attention to the impeachment drive in a barrage of tweets and during more than two hours of jousting with journalists. After a series of tense meetings on trade, Turkey’s invasion of Syria and other global matters, it was the president’s impromptu and combative style that drew derision from his counterparts in France, Canada and elsewhere.
Jaws drop: Justin Trudeau, NATO leaders discuss Trump’s lateness in viral video
Two faced: Trump calls Trudeau ‘two-faced’ following video of NATO leaders
“I watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told colleagues in a surreptitious video that quickly went viral.
Trump responded by calling Trudeau “two-faced,” another comment that rocketed around the World and obscured his NATO message. Trump was later caught on a hot microphone telling an aide that it “was funny when I said that guy was two-faced.” He also mocked the media over his decision to cancel his closing news conference.
While the viral video of World leaders captured attention on social media, it was the president’s public argument with French President Emmanuel Macron over refugees, Turkey and the future of NATO that underscored the deep divisions the president has brought to the 29-member military alliance celebrating its 70th anniversary.
Explainer: What is NATO and why is President Trump slamming it?
At water’s edge
White House aides sought to convey a clear message with the trip: That Trump was representing the United States overseas while Democrats were playing politics with impeachment at home. As Trump departed for London on Monday he lashed out at Democrats, noting they had scheduled a House Judiciary Committee hearing on impeachment during “one of the most important journeys we make as president.”
As he left the United Kingdom, the president posted a minute-long video on Twitter with highlights of the conference, including a brief meeting with Queen Elizabeth and a series of handshakes with other World leaders. The video carried no audio from the meetings he had, and instead was laid over with a dramatic, Hollywood-style soundtrack.
Throughout the impeachment inquiry, aides and allies have counseled to Trump to stay above the vicious battles over impeachment and leave the partisan brawling to surrogates. To a large degree, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon both embraced that strategy during similar dilemmas: Focus on the job while casting the impeachment effort as a political sideshow.
Some analysts said Trump met his goal of appearing presidential, drawing a split screen contrast with the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing Wednesday focused on the constitutional arguments around impeachment.
“President Trump took more than two hours of questions and held many important private bilateral meetings with World leaders,” said Texas-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Contrast that with today’s hearing with four law professors. It’s a stark difference of seriousness.”
Mackowiak said Trump was right to cancel his scheduled news conference on Wednesday because so many of the questions would almost certainly have focused on the leaked Trudeau video, and “there’s no upside in answering them.”
Others weren’t so convinced.
“Trump was elected to stand up to World leaders. He did just that,” said Frank Luntz, a longtime GOP consultant. “I just wish it wasn’t our NATO allies.”
Foreign policy as domestic strategy
It remains an open question whether Trump’s effort to stress other issues – including foreign policy – will either prevent impeachment or ensure he retains his core base of political support heading into 2020, said political analysts and Trump critics.
A Republican-led House impeached Clinton in late 1998 (though the Senate acquitted him early the next year). In the summer of 1974, the House was on its way to impeaching Nixon when he resigned in the backwash of new Watergate revelations. Both presidents had sought to rise above the fray, including with foreign trips.
“Yes, President Trump will certainly try to ‘act presidential’ to downplay the campaign to impeach him, but there’s little proof that approach will work,” said presidential historian Kevin Kruse, a professor at Princeton University.
More: How to stay updated on USA TODAY’s impeachment coverage
Trump and his aides have spent weeks trying to draw a contrast between their work schedule and the Democrats’ impeachment agenda.
The long-planned NATO event offered plenty of opportunities, and Trump hit on a litany of issues during the trip: China trade talks, protests in Iran, nukes in North Korea, next year’s G-7 summit at Camp David, and trade disputes with France and other countries.
In that sense, Trump was following a playbook set by his predecessors.
In early 1998, right after news broke about a relationship with ex-intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton went ahead with a previously scheduled education event at the White House. At the end of his remarks, an angry and finger-pointing Clinton denied having “sexual relations” with Lewinsky and claimed he “never told anybody to lie.”
He added: “I need to go back to work for the American people.”
In the fall of 1998, after testifying via video to a grand jury, Clinton took trips to Russia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Asia and the Middle East. In December, just before the House debated articles of impeachment, Clinton authorized air strikes against Iraq because it had refused to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspections.
Clinton was impeached, but did stay in office – an outcome that eluded Nixon.
On July 20, 1973, after a year of various investigations and little more than a year before his resignation, Nixon told White House staff members: “What we were elected to do, we are going to do – and let others wallow in Watergate, we are going to do our job.”
Nearly a year later, in June and early July of 1974, Nixon traveled to the Middle East, NATO headquarters in Brussels and the Soviet Union, a month after the House Judiciary Committee began impeachment hearings,
Nixon resigned that August.
Staying on message
But while Trump has been stressing his agenda, he spends as much time or more on another counter-impeachment strategy: Repeatedly and loudly denouncing the entire impeachment process as partisan, illegitimate and unfair. Trump tweeted two dozen times about the impeachment or Ukraine during his travel overseas.
“It’s a disgrace,” Trump said Wednesday during an exchange with reporters in which he was asked about the impeachment inquiry. “But what they’re doing is a very bad thing for our country. It’s of no merit.”
Throughout the visit, Trump hit Democrats for scheduling the impeachment hearing on the same day as NATO-related meetings. But the summit was also constantly upended by events that had nothing to do with the inquiry.
At one point, Trump misspoke about the U.S. position on Iran protesters, suggesting he did not support them. He walked back the comment on Twitter minutes later. In an icy moment, Trump said Macron was a “great politician” because, in response to a question about Islamic State fighters in the Middle East, the French president delivered “one of the greatest non-answers I’ve ever heard.”
Critics said the exchange was one of several that underscored a chaotic NATO meeting that undermined the president’s ability to project a sense of command on the World stage.
“Any other president would have had a prime opportunity to demonstrate American leadership and a nose-to-the-grindstone image,” said Ned Price, a former Obama administration national security official.
Trump managed to get close to the goal line, Price said, “but he still managed to fumble and to do so in a spectacular way.”
Chris Lu, former White House Cabinet Secretary under Obama, agreed.
“By using the NATO summit to attack House Democrats and then leaving the summit in a huff, Trump missed an important opportunity to rise above the domestic political fray and show voters that he’s focused on doing the job of president.”