Sullen and combative after an electoral humbling, President Donald Trump landed Friday in Paris, hoping to use the global stage to restore some standing as he faces a tumultuous political future at home.
The President and first lady are visiting the French capital for a ceremony commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I, a weighty moment for the world to remember the conflict that did not wind up ending all wars.
Officials say the President will use the moment to underscore the essential role the United States played in restoring European peace and security – and continues to play now, despite Trump’s complaints that it costs too much. Like presidents before him, he will use the trip to escape an unpleasant election outcome that could salt the remaining two years of his term with investigations, subpoenas and gridlock.
Foreign policy remains an area Trump has a mostly free hand to do with as he pleases, without requiring signoff from a soon-to-be divided Congress. His predecessors also flew off on foreign trips after midterm drubbings, using the world spotlight as a reminder of their relevance and stature.
Trump has been scrambling since Democrats won control of the House on Tuesday to distract from the results and paint forward momentum. The power shuffle in Washington swept out Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was asked to resign on Wednesday. Battles with the media and an executive action on immigration followed.
As he departed Friday for what he termed a “beautiful trip,” Trump continued to vent about the Russia investigation and new criticism from former first lady Michelle Obama in a forthcoming memoir.
Air Force One, though, is an ultimate refuge, able to place literal miles between the President and the bad news.
The President confirmed his attendance at the centenary event after determining in August that the $90 million price tag for the military parade he had commissioned in Washington was too steep. He said then that he would “go to the Paris parade” instead.
Trump had originally ordered his own military parade after being wowed by a Bastille Day procession in Paris last year. The Armistice Day ceremony is expected to be far more solemn, without an overly military bent. It is, after all, intended to observe the end of war, not the practice of it.
During his trip, Trump will visit two burial grounds near Paris set aside for some of the roughly 117,000 American military personnel who died in World War I. On Sunday – Veterans Day in the United States – he’ll deliver remarks from Suresnes, the American cemetery perched on the side of Mont Valérien with a view of the Paris skyline.
The only leader he will formally meet is his host, French President Emmanuel Macron, one of his closest global partners. US officials said the civil war in Syria and attempts to counter Iran would sit high on the agenda.
European leaders have been eyeing the President warily in his first two years in office, and Tuesday’s election results were unlikely to ease many of their concerns. For Trump, a heavier focus on foreign policy could mean even more hostile confrontations over defense spending and trade, both reliable bugbears for the “America First” commander in chief. If the past days have provided an example, Trump’s political chastening hasn’t translated into a more moderate tack.
In the French capital, Trump will at least find himself in the company of leaders facing their own political doldrums. Macron, who enjoyed a honeymoon surge of popularity following his election last year, is now wallowing in unpopularity. Recent polls have pegged his approval rating in the 20% range. When he took off for a holiday with his wife in northern France recently, rumors percolated in the French press that he was recovering from exhaustion (he denied it).
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who for years has acted as Europe’s de facto leader, is deflated. Never able to recover from her unpopular decision to allow entry to millions of migrants fleeing war in the Middle East, Merkel announced recently that she would not seek another term in office.
And British Prime Minister Theresa May is still struggling to complete her country’s exit from the European Union, a thankless task that has earned her both ridicule and rivals from her own party. Many observers don’t give her long in office when, and if, the Brexit plan is complete.
Trump and Putin
One leader in attendance not facing immediate political trouble: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the President is likely to encounter during Sunday’s centenary ceremonies.
Trump and Putin had engaged in on-again, off-again plans for a more formal meeting in Paris, but French officials intervened, telling the US and Russia that talks between the two leaders would overshadow the solemn commemoration of the end of the war. Trump announced on Wednesday that there was simply no time to meet with Putin in France.
“I’m coming back very quickly,” the President said. “I don’t think we have time set aside for that meeting.”
Instead, he said a meeting with Putin – which will act as a follow-up to a maligned summit to two men held in Helsinki, Finland, over the summer – would occur on the sidelines of the G20 summit at the end of the month in Buenos Aires (Trump will also use those talks for a dinner meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping).
Whichever the venue, Trump will face close scrutiny after his last summit with Putin ended with him essentially accepting Putin’s denial that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. With Democrats soon in control of the House, investigations into the Russia matter are all but guaranteed not to subside. And special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference is poised to scale up its public activity now that the midterm elections have concluded.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said she hoped America’s “Russophobic fervor” would end soon, but she speculated the new political climate would only escalate tensions between Washington and Moscow.
“There is unfortunately a sense that a new round of these allegations will start, but it seems to me Americans should begin to understand the absurdity of this,” she said. “Many already do. I mean American politicians.”