The weekend away in Paris should not have been hard. For most politicians, events like the armistice commemoration represent an opportunity to project themselves as greater than the sum of their soundbites, above the political fray, sombre yet at their ease among world leaders as they look out across the century gone by. There are lofty prepared remarks and no questions.
For Donald Trump, that was a bridge too far. The trip to France got off to a bad start and kept getting worse.
In a way, the US president had come to France by mistake. He had announced the trip in August after he declared that Washington’s municipal leaders wanted to over-charge for the military parade he had demanded.
He would go to the big parade in Paris, where he had been inspired by the display of military pageantry on 14 July festivities last year. But the French do parades for Bastille Day, not Armistice Day. This time there were no tanks and no marching bands.
After a few hours in a Paris hotel, the White House called off Trump’s attendance at the first memorial event of the weekend, at Belleau, where 2,000 US marines were killed. The ostensible reason for the sudden cancellation: rain.
As an alibi, this was almost instantly undermined by footage of Macron, Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau, and Trump’s own staff attending ceremonies around the country, evidently under the lightest of drizzles. Trump stayed in his hotel room, watching cable news and tweeting. Back in Washington, the White House officially dubs this “executive time.” It has become the norm in the president’s daily routine.
In France, on Veteran’s Day weekend, it came across as a snub to America’s war dead by a president who had avoided military service in Vietnam, claiming to suffer from “bone spurs.”
In the ensuing storm of tweeted derision, there were countless video clips of other leaders standing in the rain at important ceremonial events, including Trudeau in Dieppe the year before remembering the Canadian dead from the second world war, and deliberately folding his umbrella away and comparing his mild discomfort to those of soldiers for whom “the rain wasn’t rain, it was bullets.”
Former officers weighed in to note that the military had helicopters quite capable of flying in light rain. Veterans of the White House recalled they always had a contingency plan for getting the president to an important event in case of inclement weather.
Once again, Trump had demonstrated his knack for making global events of historic significance telescope inwards until they become frenzied debates over his own quirks.
A display of leadership solidarity in the face of the scourge of war became once more an exercise in isolation. As other leaders walked in a phalanx along the Champs Élysées on Sunday, Trump travelled separately, by armoured limousine. On early occasions he had managed a show of bonhomie in meetings with Macron but at his Élysée Palace meeting this time, he sat glumly like a pupil made to stay after school and did not respond when Macron patted him on the arm.
When the French president spoke under the Arc de Triomphe, no one had any doubt whom he was speaking to when he said: “Patriotism is the antithesis of nationalism. Nationalism is inherently treasonous. In saying ‘our interests first, and forget the others,’ we lose the most important part of the nation: its moral values.”
Trump looked on grimly throughout. The only moment he brightened up was when he saw Vladimir Putin approach. He flashed a goofy smile, all the more noticeable alongside Macron and Merkel who had switched their demeanour to steel resolve on spotting the Russian leader.
Putin solemnly shook hands with them and then gave Trump a big thumbs up.
Merkel looked on in astonishment and then turned back with a smile on her face that suggested that she had come up with a vignette to start the chapter on the Trump-Putin axis in her memoir.
There had been much speculation – fed by the Kremlin and half-denied by the White House – over whether Trump and Putin would meet at the world war one commemorations.
It turned out they had been slated to sit next to each other at Sunday lunch, but the French hosts switched the seating arrangement to place Trump next to Macron and across from Putin, making personal asides considerably more difficult.
After lunch, Trump had a second chance at public remembrance of his country’s war dead, at a cemetery in the Parisian suburb of Suresnes. He delivered respectful remarks in the rain this time, remembering those who had given their last breath in the mighty struggle. But he could not resist an aside observing he was being “drenched” while veterans were watching from under cover. “You look so comfortable up there, under shelter,” he joked, “as we’re getting drenched. You’re very smart people.”
From Suresnes, the presidential entourage went straight to the airport. Trump did not take part in the “peace forum” Macron had arranged with the intention that his fellow leaders ruminate on the murderous follies of the Great War and compare it to the rise of nationalism today.
The whole weekend was supposed to be a show of western solidarity, and ended up proving its absence. Trump showed himself ill at ease with most of his European counterparts and the fleeting encounter with Putin was a reminder of his much greater affinity for autocrats.
He has claimed warm, even affectionate, relations with Putin, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, Mohammed bin Salman, Rodrigo Duterte and now Brazil’s president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro.
Trump is the first American president that is in love with dictators. Think about that.