President Donald Trump landed in Warsaw, Poland, under the cover of darkness Wednesday but there will be no hiding from the spotlight during his two-day European visit that will include a much-anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump is slated to deliver what national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster described last week as a “major speech” to the Polish people on Thursday. A day later, the president will be in Hamburg, Germany, for a meeting of the leaders of 20 rich and developing countries.
Senior White House aides have busily described the president’s schedule, especially at the G-20 summit, as “packed.” Not only will he meet with Putin, but also his British, Chinese, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Mexican and South Korean counterparts, among other world leaders.
The White House has high hopes for Trump’s speech in Poland and his first G-20 summit, with McMaster telling reporters the administration has three main goals for the trip: “To promote American prosperity, to protect American interests, and to provide American leadership. These three objectives tie together every engagement President Trump has with foreign leaders.”
The first two also align with the president’s “America First” approach to foreign policy. “America First … does not mean America alone,” McMaster said. “President Trump has demonstrated a commitment to American alliances because strong alliances further American security and American interests.”
But Trump has also, as recently as minutes before boarding Marine One to begin his transatlantic trek, been critical of U.S. allies and partners. In a tweet, he criticized China for its growing trade with North Korea.
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
Here are three things to watch when Trump lands in Europe for what could be his second contentious visit there.
There is no argument about the main event of the president’s G-20 schedule. His Friday afternoon meeting with Putin is being billed as a high-stakes session that will help set the tone for their relationship — and that of their nuclear-armed countries.
But with their first one-on-one meeting less than 48 hours away, it remains unclear whether Trump will confront Putin over what all U.S. intelligence agencies agree was a Kremlin-backed operation to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“Well, there’s no specific agenda,” McMaster said. “It's really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.” Notably, administration officials last week touted the meeting as what’s known in diplomatic circles as an informal “pull aside.” But on Tuesday, as Americans were celebrating Independence Day, the White House announced it has been upgraded to a formal “bilateral” meeting, giving it more oomph — and Putin more legitimacy.
Lawmakers from both parties want Trump to let Putin know that similar acts in the future will not be tolerated, and many want a tougher stance from the administration toward Moscow. House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., for instance, in recent days has called for “measures to strengthen deterrence against Russia” and a “comprehensive strategy against President Putin’s effort to corrode and undermine democracy worldwide.”
But some experts are preaching lower expectations for what will be one of the most closely watched meetings of American and Russian leaders in some time.
“For the self-respect of the country,” Trump must “come in and lead with at least a jab with the intrusion into our electoral system,” said James Stavridis, a former U.S. European Command chief and NATO supreme allied commander. “But, yes, we ought to try and find zones of cooperation where we can with the Russian Federation.
“Putin wants to appear strong internally. Internationally, he wants to look like a player,” he told MSNBC. “At the end of the day, I think Trump can play on that to work with Putin to try and find some trade space in Syria. I think that’s the one [issue] we can get some help on.”
That seems a fitting description of Trump’s emerging approach to and his relationships with other world leaders — and even his public messages about them versus those of his aides. In short, keep an eye on how contentious and, likely, awkward, things get in Hamburg.
The world was taken aback last month when the U.S. president shoved Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro, out of his way in an apparent attempt to be photographed at the front of a group of G-7 leaders. A sequel is definitely possible given Trump’s unpredictable and protocol-shunning actions.
In office for just over five months, Trump has already had rows with the leaders of longtime U.S. allies such as Australia, Canada, and France. He also has a rocky relationship with others, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom many experts say is the new “leader of the free world” given Trump’s stated disdain for having America’s leader continue in that role.
“By bashing the G20 members and the NATO alliance, Donald Trump has diminished the credibility and endangered the national security of the United States,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement as Air Force One was over the Atlantic Ocean. “Will they continue to offer strong support to a president who undermines their roles in the international community and instead hurls insults and threats?”
Dan Kochis, an European affairs analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the president’s trip “a critical early juncture for U.S. policy toward Europe and Russia.” Kochis expects the president and his French and German counterparts will discuss bolstering their cooperation on issues such as counterterrorism and some economic matters.
But he also highlighted what could set off the sometimes-combative Trump and offered some advice: “President Trump should be prepared for areas where U.S. interests and positions conflict with those of America’s European friends.”
POTUS in Poland
The White House’s selection of the central European country of Poland for one of Trump’s first foreign speeches is seen by experts as sending a not-so-subtle message to Putin that the administration intends to remain a player in Russia’s backyard.
“The main message is that America is with you, America understands that its interests align with the interests of the Polish people,” McMaster said when asked to describe the goals for the Warsaw address. “And we are determined to do our best to work together on our common priorities and our common interests.”
In a remark no doubt noticed inside the Kremlin, Trump’s national security adviser said a top priority is to provide “American leadership … to keep Poland connected to what they fought for for so long, which is to be part of Europe.”
Notably, however, the president’s Thursday speech in Warsaw to the Polish people is being penned primarily by senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. The speech is expected to tout the Polish people’s longtime focus on their own “national identity,” according to one report.
That’s key because Miller is a leading architect and proponent of Trump’s “America First” philosophy. That means the U.S. president will be sending a message not only to Putin, but also to more globalist European leaders as he continues to move America into its own orbit and away from its traditional allies.