It was the presidential version of what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation: Buckingham Palace to see bearskin-hatted guards; Normandy for the hallowed rows of fallen American heroes; and the west of Ireland for a round of golf on the Atlantic-facing links.
For a man who would rather remain in his own bedroom than venture abroad, President Donald Trump this week appeared to savor the sightseeing aspects of his visit to Europe, where foreign counterparts eager to instill a sense of weighted history in the President (and his extended family) played tour guide and docent.
Trump’s inner-tourist emerged as he slowly paced Buckingham Palace’s Picture Gallery with the 93-year-old monarch, lingering over displays of old maps and a strategically selected swatch of yellow fabric – a piece of MacLeod tartan, the family of Trump’s mother.
He made a stop at the warren of rooms from which Winston Churchill directed the war effort, a must-stop in every London guidebook and a pilgrimage of sorts for a President who’s sought to emulate the man, at least in photographs.
In pictures: President Trump in Europe
Trump flashed an excited grin as the Red Arrows flew overhead in Portsmouth Harbor, disgorging red, white and blue jet trails.
And he appeared floored by his first visit to Omaha Beach, later narrating with awe the tour he received.
“They call them the ‘guides.’ And they were guiding us. They were telling us what happened and when,” Trump recounted. “It was so incredible and so fascinating.”
In preparing his educational itinerary, Trump’s counterparts seemed intent on inducing respect and support for the institutions and leaders who helped mend Europe after the horrors of war – never more overtly than when outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May gifted him a copy of the Atlantic Charter, the document drafted by the US and UK to map out a postwar order.
It’s far from clear the efforts will succeed in wooing an unpredictable leader into accepting the bodies and relationships he’s denigrated previously. Nor is it evident the weight of history that hung over this trip moved Trump beyond an immediate sense of wonder.
Sense of relief
Still, in the palaces and cabinet rooms the President leaves behind, there is relief among foreign officials that Trump’s European adventure ended without the kind of embarrassing episode that have colored some of his past jaunts abroad.
Not to say it was all smooth cruising. Trump lashed out at left-leaning politicians in London and made little attempt to mask his preferences in the race to become Britain’s next prime minister.
At times he seemed less-than-fully-aware of the issues that are being debated here, whether it is the UK health service’s role in a new trade deal or Ireland’s future border with Northern Ireland after Brexit is complete.
And like many an American tourist, Trump was disappointed to learn his favorite television channels weren’t available when he arrived to his accommodations (in this case, the neo-Georgian mansion where the US ambassador lives).
But in his public appearances with royalty and politicians alike, Trump appeared more gracious than hostile, eagerly willing to return the flattery that had been directed his way at nearly every opportunity since he touched down in Britain Monday.
May, felled by Brexit and once the subject of Trump’s mockery, is now “a tremendous professional and a person that loves your country dearly.”
Queen Elizabeth II, a point of fascination for the President dating back to his childhood, is a “a fantastic person, fantastic woman.”
And French President Emmanuel Macron, who Trump castigated during and immediately after his last visit to France in November, appears to be enjoying a tentative return to good graces.
“It’s been good sometimes, and sometimes it hasn’t been. But, right now, it’s outstanding,” Trump said of their relationship.
A trip of fascination
As Trump’s visit to Europe drew to a close Friday, White House officials were exuberant at how the President was received in Britain and France, believing his public appearances presented a man in command of his office and respected by America’s closest allies.
Often, Trump complains when abroad about packed itineraries and asks if he can depart early. His schedules include long stretches of downtime. He also avoids the type of cultural interactions that were trademark features of the trips his predecessor, President Barack Obama, took overseas.
Trump’s visit to Europe was still a distant cry from Obama strolling the streets of a Laotian mountain village or hiking through Patagonia with his children. His interactions were all official engagements designed by his foreign hosts. And the United Kingdom and France are hardly the kind of exotic locales where Trump could experience a new culture.
Over and over this week, however, Trump seemed like a visitor to a new land, expressing a certain fascination at what he saw – whether it was the harrowing facts of the D-Day landings or the quiet majesty of Queen Elizabeth.
The presence of his adult children – Donald Jr. and Eric, who pulled pints at the village pub near their father’s golf course; Tiffany, who joined her siblings for the state banquet; and White House advisers Ivanka and Jared Kushner, who carried out their own meetings – also lent the trip the feeling of a Trump family vacation.
Part of the White House’s rationale for scheduling rapid-pace foreign travel this summer – Trump will venture abroad three times in the span of the month – was to project an image of a commanding incumbent leader as Democrats scramble among themselves to become his general election rival.
In Britain, the images of Trump greeting the Queen in white-tie-and-tails (however ill-fitting) and reading from a prayer originally delivered by President Franklin Roosevelt fit that bill.
Taken with the history
Even an accommodation designed to prevent Trump from confronting protesters – flying his Marine One helicopter short distances in London – provided the White House ample footage of Trump stepping from his green military helicopter.
Trump has cherished the military trappings on the job, and at the White House the President is said to be taken with the history of his surroundings, offering tours of the Lincoln Bedroom to both his close personal friends and to large groups of relative strangers.
People who have discussed the building’s history with him say Trump appears genuinely attentive to his home’s past, at least the parts he’s learned about through discussions with presidential historians and conversations with people who work in the building.
However, interest in history and reverence for it are separate sentiments. Just as Trump has thought little of shattering political norms at the White House, his time in Europe this week was marked by jarring juxtapositions of solemnity and insolence, often at the same moment.
When he was telling interviewer Laura Ingraham that special counsel Robert Mueller – himself a war veteran – made a “fool of himself,” he was seated with the white marble crosses of the Normandy American Ceremony in soft focus behind him, the weight of the setting doing little to temper his mindset.
As he was preparing to depart London for Portsmouth, where American troops were barracked before the Normandy landings and later treated if they made it out alive, Trump found time to deem the actress Bette Midler a “psycho” on Twitter.