President Donald Trump will arrive in Argentina on Thursday evening for the G20 meeting, where world leaders may be bracing themselves.
Trump has a pattern of disrupting global summits and gatherings, particularly with allies, picking fights before he arrives and hurling criticism after he goes. This time might not be much different.
The Group of Twenty, an annual summit for leaders, foreign ministers and central bank governors, is larger than the Group of Seven meeting that Trump disrupted in July or the Peace Forum in France earlier this month, where Trump held himself apart from European allies.
The G20 will also include a growing group the President admires: fellow populists and the autocratic, sometimes repressive leaders of Russia, Turkey, China and Saudi Arabia.
Their presence might change the tenor of this global gathering for Trump, putting him alongside like-minded leaders like Brazil’s newly elected Jair Bolsonaro, but the G20 will also give the President an opportunity to score political points at home and a platform to distract from the troubles he faces in Washington.
“The conventional wisdom is he hates these things, but there’s another dimension on which he thrives,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Trump doesn’t like multilateral diplomacy, but prides himself on being a norm breaker at these events. He knows the world is watching and it is quintessentially the thing he loves most: It’s a big stage.”
As the weekend is kicking off, a person familiar with early talks over a joint G20 communique to be sent out this weekend said the talks are already becoming difficult. US is disagreeing with any references to “free trade”—insisting it must be “free and fair trade,” according to the person. The US also hates any talk of strengthening international trading systems—which is code for the WTO, and on climate change, the US doesn’t want any reference to the Paris deal, nor links made between emissions and climate change, the person said.
While the President has made distrust of international organizations a political hallmark, the G20 will put him among a group of populist leaders who have chafed against multilateral institutions in the same way he does and who may make him feel like a star within a burgeoning global political movement.
Italy, a G20 member, has a new populist leader, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who is cracking down on immigration and asylum seekers, bolstering the country’s police forces and cutting taxes, all while warring with the European Union.
Brazil’s Bolsonaro, known for misogynistic, racist and homophobic remarks, as well as approving comments about military rule, won praise this month from Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who said the US was “thrilled” to be working with a “like-minded” leader.
Trump has expressed his distaste for multilateral institutions by cutting funding or withdrawing from certain United Nations groups and agreements, repeatedly offering inaccurate criticism of NATO and walking away from major international pacts such as the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
Other populist leaders are now following his example. Italy recently echoed a Trump administration decision and withdrew from the UN’s Global Compact on Migration, while Brazil just announced that it will reverse a decision to host the next set of UN climate talks.
Trump will encounter Bolsonaro and Conte in group settings and he’ll have one-on-one meetings with other leaders, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
Miller notes that “the G20 will also afford him the opportunity to interact with a number of authoritarians.” Trump will likely chat with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is due to sit down with China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Enemies and allies
Trump has threatened to cancel his meeting with Putin after Moscow seized three Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov, but no formal decision has been made.
And as lawmakers excoriate the administration for its handling of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by men close to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Bolton has said Trump has no plans to meet formally with the crown prince, phrasing that doesn’t preclude a more casual encounter.
Trump has scrupulously avoided criticizing either Putin or bin Salman, even as both come in for heated criticism in Washington. Alina Polyakova, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said this “fits a pattern of how the President has approached adversaries, as opposed to allies,” that’s been on display in previous summit situations.
“Putin, (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un, even Xi,” Polyakova said, “in the lead-up to any meeting he praises them, or at the very least doesn’t say anything negative, even when there’s ample reason to be critical.”
“But ahead of meetings with European allies, who the President treats as enemies, he tends to want to criticize them,” she said.
Indeed, Trump fired insults at French President Emmanuel Macron before and after his visit to France to mark a World War I anniversary, where he did not join other leaders for a ceremony. Reportedly most galling to many in France was the President’s tweet claiming that “they were starting to learn German in Paris before the US came along.”
He’s recently needled British Prime Minister Theresa May about her plans to pull Britain from the EU. He blasted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the Canadian announced, at the close of the G7 summit in Quebec, that his country would meet US tariffs with penalties on US goods.
And on Sunday, as Russia was firing on a member of NATO, the President took to Twitter – not to criticize Moscow or offer support to Ukraine, but to chastise Europe for not spending more on the alliance and about trade.
“He doesn’t like dealing with these people,” said Miller. “They ask him to do things, they’re not cooperative, they don’t lay down and praise him every time he walks into a room.”
Still, Miller described Trump’s approach to summits as a “love-hate relationship: There are encumbrances, meetings, interactions with people who ask for things and criticize him, but he’s on the stage … and he loves to poke, irritate and annoy.”
CNN’s Michelle Kosinski contributed to this report.