In normal times, President Donald Trump’s two-day sojourn to Paris would be a simple and uncomplicated mission.
But as the Russian election-meddling drama intensifies, these are not normal times.
Trump will serve as guest of honor at France’s Bastille Day national military parade on the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, invoking American triumphs abroad with a dash of pageantry that could help lift a struggling presidency and position him as a strong commander-in-chief.
His trip also offers the chance for Trump to forge a strong relationship with an increasingly influential world leader, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, and to embrace the ceremonial spurs of the presidency to show Americans back home that he is up to the job.
But this looks almost certain to become Trump’s third visit to Europe dominated by questions over the role Russia played in his election. This time, it’s the admission — via emails his son, Donald Trump Jr. released — that Trump Jr. set up a meeting last year with a woman he believed was a Russian government lawyer brandishing Kremlin dirt on Hillary Clinton.
If Trump, as scheduled, holds a press conference with Macron on Thursday, it’s almost certain he will be called upon — or volunteer — to address the meeting and the wider issue of alleged collusion with the Russians.
The President sought to get out ahead of that confrontation on Wednesday, telling Reuters in an interview that he did not know about the meeting when it took place last June.
“No, that I didn’t know until a couple of days ago when I heard about this,” he said.
It wouldn’t be the first time that the Russia drama has smudged out White House efforts to promote Trump’s global agenda.
His first trip to Europe in May was shadowed by questions about his failure to mention NATO’s principle of mutual self defense — questions lent added weight by his uncritical past statements about Russia.
Just last week, at the G20 summit in Germany, Trump saw his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin spoiled by differing US-Russia interpretations of discussions on election meddling. As the Russia intrigue deepened, the President has stayed out of view since returning home at the weekend with no public events set for three days.
A Republican source said Trump was angry that what he considered a successful visit to Poland and Germany last week was overshadowed by Russia. Now Russia headlines are likely proliferate once again.
Trump and Macron’s unique relationship
Still, there are serious geopolitical issues at stake in Trump’s trip that could benefit from his attention and may yield progress. And his interaction with Macron will highlight a remarkable study in contrasts.
Macron, 39, came from nowhere politically and, like Trump, overturned establishment politics and got elected president. But with unexpected political dexterity, he abruptly changed the face of French politics in a way Trump, 71, has been unable to do in America, by winning a subsequent parliamentary election and injecting a mood of optimism after years of failed presidencies.
He’s also become a rising star on the global stage and is already seen as a fulcrum and leader of the West, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“In less than two months, Macron will have hosted two of the world’s most controversial leaders, Putin and Trump,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Paris office. “Despite some criticism within the French political class, these bilateral meetings were generally perceived as successful diplomatic ‘coup’ signaling that France is back on the diplomatic scene.”
Trump, like Macron, a scourge of established political forces, also defied the odds to win. But while Macron prospered, Trump lurched into a political crisis as soon as he was inaugurated.
Many world leaders see him as the antitheses of what the West stands for. Trump has infuriated Europeans by pulling out of the Paris climate accord, and is seen as an agent of intolerance and instability among the political classes across much of Europe.
Only 14% of French people in a recent Pew Global Attitudes Poll expressed confidence in Trump to do the right thing in international affairs. Trump, for his part, has unabashedly bucked diplomatic norms, just as he pledged to during his campaign, a stance that has delighted his supporters.
The invitation also hints at Macron’s strategy of reinvigorating France as a major world power, and a determination to ensure that despite antipathy in Europe towards Trump’s approach, the US remains engaged in the West.
With Trump at odds with Merkel, Macron is setting himself up as a bridge between America and the rest of Europe.
The new French leader wants to make clear that despite sharp differences over climate and trade, and global outlook, the alliance between France and the US is vital for the good of the international order.
“We want to stress the importance of the enduring French-US relationship whatever current disagreements there might be at present,” a senior French official said on condition of anonymity.
Macron’s invitation also shows the advantage of being a leader with a strong mandate. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, struggling to hang on to power after an election debacle, has been forced to put off a state visit by the unpopular Trump until next year.
One reason why France wants to keep the US engaged is its desire to enshrine its role as the major European defense partner with the United States and in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq and inside Europe.
Trump is likely to repay Macron’s hospitality with a firm restatement of the alliance, and the importance of France’s global role, always an important consideration in French politics.
“We have a long history — not always marching in lockstep, but (we are) real friends and real allies,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday. “And so there are clear parallels to our partnership and our alliances 100 years ago and today, no question about that.”
Macron won’t go easy
Macron will be under political pressure to be tough to Trump — just as he did when he held a combative news conference with Putin at Versailles last month when he hit out at alleged Russian interference in the French election.
Macron made a statement with a white-knuckle handshake with Trump at their first meeting in Brussels in May.
And in an unprecedented English language YouTube broadcast to the American people after Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord, Macron trolled the US President by saying he wanted to “Make the Planet Great Again.”
“Macron will have to show firmness on issues that are critical to French national interests and values, if he wants to be perceived in France as the ‘winner’ of the meeting,” de Hoop Scheffer said. “He will have to demonstrate his own negotiating skills and not be seen as making too many concessions.”
French officials also believe that it is important that Macron and Trump, despite their differences, establish a workable personal connection.
So, after the two men meet for talks on Thursday, and a news conference that could highlight the difference between them, they will dine together with their wives, Melania and Brigitte.
Trump, a man who knows something about towers, will sit down with Macron on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, at the famed Le Jules Verne restaurant owned by Chef Alain Ducasse, perhaps for a few hours finding refuge from relentless headlines about the Russia questions hounding his presidency.