Political News

Unbridled Trump storms global stage

Posted May 9, 2018 2:52 p.m. EDT

— As President Donald Trump and his French counterpart spooned into Dover sole and chocolate soufflé at George Washington's riverfront estate last month, the conversation swiftly moved from colonial history to modern politics.

Over the course of the 90-minute meal, according to people familiar with it, Trump repeatedly reminded French President Emmanuel Macron of the promises the American made to his voters -- not just to quit the Iran nuclear deal, which Macron had traveled from Paris to save, but to wind down US involvement in the Middle East and escalate pressure on North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Macron, who later relayed the conversation to aides, walked away increasingly sure Trump would scrap the Iran accord, just as he'd repeatedly vowed to do as a candidate. But it was also clear, 15 months into his tenure, that Trump was more willing than ever to shatter ties with America's closest allies to make good on his "America First" pledge.

Trump's decisions over the past months, and the moves he's planning in the coming weeks, have shaped the global stage in his image and shaken long-standing geopolitical forces. His imprint on the world is being felt in remarkable and often head-spinning ways, delighting his supporters and alarming his critics who fear a chaotic fallout from his actions.

Far-reaching diplomacy

Hardly a student of diplomacy before taking office, Trump is influencing the world in far-reaching ways for a new American president. His actions reflect an emboldened commander in chief no longer restrained by aides or conventions he considered outmoded or misguided.

A day after announcing his withdrawal from the Iran deal, Trump proclaimed on Twitter that his secretary of state was jetting home from North Korea with three ex-prisoners, greasing the path for his upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un. On Monday, a US embassy will open in Jerusalem, overturning decades of US policy that refused to recognize the city as Israel's capital. And the top economic aide to Chinese President Xi Jinping is due in Washington next week as Trump continues to cause shockwaves on global trade.

Over the past month, Trump has engaged in a marathon of diplomacy, including hosting his first state visit, for Macron, and welcoming a parade of other leaders to the White House. He's set to meet with South Korea's president later this month. In early June he's expected in Canada for his second G7 meeting, where European leaders humiliated by his withdrawal from the Iran deal will benefit from a six-on-one dynamic. He'll also visit Britain in July after delaying a visit for more than a year. Mass protests are planned.

Trump enters the fray having shed aides who had cautioned him against some of the decisions he ultimately made. His ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster both successfully counseled Trump to remain in the Iran deal when they were on the job. But their insistence on sticking to the plan aggravated Trump and played a role in both men's downfalls.

This time around, there were fewer detractors. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who had argued during previous deliberations that a withdrawal could harm US alliances, did not offer a vocal case for remaining in the agreement this time around, people familiar with the deliberations said. Mike Pompeo, who replaced Tillerson as Trump's top diplomat, pressed for a longer negotiating period with European allies and a more phased withdrawal. Trump ultimately jettisoned that advice.

Iran deal withdrawal

Although few within the administration ever doubted Trump would ultimately exit the Iran accord, preparations for Tuesday's announcement stretched through the weekend and into Monday, White House officials said. The precise policy prescriptions of the withdrawal were still in flux as recently as late last week, the officials said.

Trump spent the last few the weeks calling staffers early in the morning and late at night to hammer out details of the decision, one White House official said, and was more involved than usual in the speech-writing process heading into the announcement this week. In the 48 hours leading up to the event, Trump hand-wrote notes in the margins of speech drafts and dictated other changes to staffers working on the remarks.

People involved in the process said the atypical involvement reflected Trump's belief the Iran announcement would signal a new era of campaign promises fulfilled; just weeks earlier, he had thrown the text of a different speech in the air and called it "boring" at a tax reform event in West Virginia -- a marked departure from the attention sources said Trump paid to his speech about the Iran deal.

Republicans have insisted it's the tax cuts that will provide them momentum in November's midterm elections. But Trump is more convinced the showmanship he's demonstrated in foreign affairs will help propel the GOP, according to people who have spoken with him.

North Korean talks

He's lent the North Korea talks an air of spectacle, from teasing the location to demanding the optics be as momentous as a summit last month between Kim and South Korea's Moon Jae-in. Early Thursday he'll travel to a darkened tarmac at Joint Base Andrews to welcome US citizens just released from captivity in North Korea.

"I look forward to seeing you -- probably, some of you, maybe a lot of you," Trump told reporters. "It'll be two o'clock in the morning. It'll be quite a scene."

He also presented uncharacteristic modesty when asked whether he was owed a Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward ending the North Korean nuclear crisis -- a prospect that Trump has raised frequently in private, despite his humility before cameras.

"Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it," Trump said with a grin. "You know what I want to do? I want to get it finished. The prize I want is victory for the world."

It's an open question how the biggest diplomatic gamble of his presidency will turn out, but there's little question that Trump is driving the global discussion. While many of his peers have seen their statures diminished by controversies at home, Trump's standing has risen, despite scandal, investigation and unpopularity among a majority of Americans.

Trump's approval rating on foreign affairs topped 40% for the first time since April 2017 in a recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS. But a majority of Americans -- 51% -- still disapprove of how he's handled his foreign portfolio.