Those were just a few of the comments I heard in Berlin this week from senior European officials trying to make sense of the meltdown in Washington at just the moment when a politically imploding President Trump embarks on what he called “my big foreign trip” in this morning’s kickoff tweet.
For months, the American president has raised unprecedented questions about the future of the American-led alliance that has persisted since the end of World War II. He has slagged off NATO, evinced skepticism about the European Union, cheered for like-minded right-wing populists, boosted antidemocratic strongmen like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and vowed to rip up free trade deals—and Europe’s political class has been outraged, confused and even terrified.
Trump’s tumultuous last two weeks—from firing his FBI director to allegedly sharing highly classified information with Russian officials even as a formidable special counsel was being named to investigate his campaign team’s possible collusion with the Kremlin—has them still confused about his foreign policy. But now they are more appalled than afraid of the man with whom they have no choice but to partner.
Many I spoke with said they had made a fundamental mistake of viewing Trump primarily as an ideologue with whom they disagreed rather than what he increasingly appears to be: an ill-prepared newcomer to the world stage, with uninformed views and a largely untested team that will now be sorely tried by a 9-day, 5-stop world tour that would be wildly ambitious even for a seasoned global leader.
“People are less worried than they were six weeks ago, less afraid,” a senior German government official with extensive experience in the United States told me. “Now they see the clownish nature.” Or, as another German said on the sidelines of a meeting here devoted to taking stock of 70 years of U.S.-German relations, “People here think Trump is a laughingstock.”
“The dominant reaction to Trump right now is mockery,” Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of the conservative journal the National Interest, told the meeting at the German Foreign Office here while moderating a panel on Trump’s foreign policy that dealt heavily on the difficulty of divining an actual policy amid the spectacle. Heilbrunn, whose publication hosted Trump’s inaugural foreign policy speech in Washington during last year’s campaign, used the ‘L’ word too. “The Trump administration is becoming an international laughingstock.” Michael Werz, a German expert from the liberal U.S. think tank Center for American Progress, agreed, adding he was struck by “how rapidly the American brand is depreciating over the last 20 weeks.”
Of course, Americans have had presidential scandals before, and Europe has a long history of substantive clashes with U.S. presidents over everything from the Vietnam war and confronting the Soviets to the widely opposed 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Even Trump flying off on a poorly timed international tour isn’t entirely unfamiliar territory: Many embattled U.S. leaders have hit the road for a dose of statesman-like pageantry, red-carpet receptions and global superpower-style pomp to compensate for pressing investigations and congressional uproar back home. Bill Clinton toured Russia and Northern Ireland after testifying to the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky affair and was in Israel when he learned the House of Representatives had the votes to impeach him. Ronald Reagan summited with Mikhail Gorbachev as the congressional Iran-Contra hearings threatened to derail his second-term agenda.
But Trump’s tribulations have confounded the world, and especially America’s closest allies here in Europe, in a whole different way. Never has a U.S. president flailed so early in his tenure at a time when he is still such an unknown quantity in the world. In Trump’s case, he will arrive in a skeptical Europe with an inexperienced or nonexistent staff appointed to deal with global problems and a record of wildly contradictory statements even on matters of core principle. Does he think NATO is still “obsolete” or not? Is he prepared to offer the Russians anything more than the symbolism of his recent, chummy Oval Office visit with its foreign minister? Want to blow up carefully negotiated agreements with Europe on climate change and trade?
No one knows.
When European diplomats meet these days, they often swap stories about Trump—and how to manage their volatile new ally. “The president of the United States has a 12-second attention span,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a former senior official in April after meeting Trump in the Oval Office. Not only that, this person told me, the president seemed unprepared and ill-informed, turning the conversation to North Korea and apparently unaware that NATO is not a part of the ongoing North Korea saga.
Such anecdotes have shaped how Europe’s anxious leaders are preparing for Trump’s trip this week – he will come to Brussels for a NATO session on Thursday—and for another one planned for early July, when he visits Germany for a G-20 summit at which he is expected to meet Putin face to face for the first time.
Some of the reported preparations for the NATO session in Brussels this week suggest just how much the volatile-clown theory of the American president has now taken hold.
NATO has downgraded the May 25 session to a meeting from a summit and will hold only a dinner to minimize the chances of a Trump eruption. Leaders have been told to hold normally windy remarks to just two to four minutes to keep Trump’s attention. They are even preparing to consider a “deliverable” to Trump of having NATO officially join the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria, as Trump has said his priority is getting NATO to do more in combating terrorism. “It’s a phony deliverable to give to Trump, a Twitter deliverable,” said a former senior U.S. official, pointing out that the individual NATO member states are already members of that coalition.
A Trump photo-op with a chunk of the World Trade Center has been choreographed in hopes of convincing the president who called NATO “obsolete” to reaffirm the basic principles of an organization committed to the mutual security of its members. The World Trade Center wreckage is part of a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks at NATO’s new headquarters that Trump is set to officially open (though the building is not in fact finished), and NATO observers hope he will use the occasion to finally endorse the principle in Article V of the NATO Treaty that requires countries to treat an attack on one NATO country as an attack on all – an article that has only been invoked once in the organization’s history: after 9/11. “The purpose of the 9/11 memorial opening is to try to get Trump to mention the Article V commitment, since how can he get around it? It’s the only time Article V was ever used,” the former official said.
This is viewed as an especially crucial moment for Trump to do so, given his stated goal of working more closely with Russia even as Russia threatens neighboring states like the three Baltic countries that are now NATO members. But Trump has resisted it, and as Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution has reported, “Trump’s failure to endorse Article V is not an oversight. Members of his cabinet have unsuccessfully tried to insert this language into his remarks, including at his meeting with Stoltenberg.”
Now, they are finally hoping he will do so – but have no promise.
No promises might well be the theme of Trump’s trip. Consider Trump’s original campaign-trail threat to blow up NATO if member states don’t live up to their commitment to put 2 percent of the budget into defense; even that, it appears, might now might be back on the table. Trump has publicly claimed victory on that score, crowing that he had already forced allies to comply, but in fact, few countries have actually raised their spending – and an anonymous senior White House official told a reporter this week that “he is not going to stay in NATO if NATO does not make a lot more progress.”
No doubt jittery officials have reason to be nervous. In an interview as Trump departed, Stoltenberg told Bloomberg TV that “Trump has clearly stated to me in several conversations … that he’s strongly committed to NATO.” As for Thursday’s meeting in Brussels? “I hope and expect that he will reiterate his strong commitment to NATO.”
But will he? And what would it mean if he does?
The question of Donald Trump’s real views on NATO might not be as entertaining as the political spectacle unfolding in Washington, but the answer is just as uncertain.
On Tuesday night, Germany Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel opened the conference on U.S.-German relations, sponsored by the American Council on Germany and the Atlantik-Brucke think tank here, with a lengthy, serious speech on the Marshall Plan’s legacy, a paean to American leadership in Europe and a rebuttal to Trump’s “America First” mantra.
“We associate the United States with the idea of freedom and democracy,” he said, before warning of the erosion of the global order that America made. “A recalibration of the world is in full swing.”
An hour later, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile was taking questions over dinner from a largely German group of current and former government officials and international business leaders.
What did they want to know?
How does impeachment work? Did James Comey’s last-minute reopening of the Clinton investigation swing the election to Trump? Did the Russians? Oh, and once again: Will Trump be impeached?
“Well, people seem to think he’s just going to be removed. I don’t know,” Brazile said, after telling the Europeans that she thought Democrats, not Russians or the ousted FBI director, bore more blame for the Trump victory. “He’s the president, he was elected.” Brazile said she prayed for Trump in church. “I want my president to succeed,” she said, before adding, “But no one is above the law.”
A few minutes after she finished speaking, the New York Times posted the latest revelation of a week filled with them: that Comey had kept contemporaneous notes of his meetings with Trump, including the allegation that the president asked him to shut down the investigation of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The Europeans, just like their American counterparts, were glued to their phones.