'A Close Personal Relationship' Under Pressure As Trump Hosts France's Macron

Apr 23, 2018
Originally published on April 23, 2018 11:18 pm

President Trump will welcome French President Emmanuel Macron to the United States for an official state visit on Monday, in the latest sign of goodwill between the two leaders.

The two got off to a rocky start after sharing a tense handshake at their first meeting at a NATO summit in Brussels last May. But since that shaky beginning, Trump and Macron have developed a surprisingly collegial bond.

"It's no secret that President Trump and President Macron enjoy a good working relationship — I may say, a close personal relationship," a senior administration official told reporters at a briefing ahead of Macron's visit.

The strength of that bond may be tested during their talks this week, though. Macron is expected to press Trump for concessions on matters where the United States and France have not been aligned, including the U.S. military strategy in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, and trade.

Until now, Trump and Macron have been able to mostly lay aside their differences and work together on important issues.

France joined the United States and Britain in carrying out airstrikes against the Syrian government earlier this month after a suspected chemical weapons attack.

But cracks in that united front were exposed shortly after those airstrikes took place, when Macron told French media that he had convinced Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria.

The White House quickly pushed back, saying that the U.S. mission in Syria had not changed, and Trump still expects to bring U.S. troops stationed there home as quickly as possible.

Macron will likely try to get assurances from Trump during their discussions at the White House that the United States will not leave Syria until ISIS is fully defeated.

"The big question is whether the stylistic affinity and the camaraderie that the two presidents developed leads to actual substantive policy changes from Washington's point of view," said Jeffrey Rathke, who served as director of the State Department press office during the Obama administration.

Different in politics, similar in styles

Trump and Macron seem worlds apart politically — Macron is a centrist and pro-European Union, while Trump was elected on a populist "America First" platform.

Still, both men are outsiders who unexpectedly rose to their country's top office. They both have an appreciation for grandiose optics and work to present themselves as strong leaders.

Macron used their common styles to his advantage when he invited Trump to Paris last July, treating Trump and the first lady to dinner at the Eiffel Tower.

During that trip, Trump was guest of honor at the Bastille Day parade, where he made no attempt to conceal his excitement for the military show, pointing and gesturing at fighter jets as they flew by.

Trump and Macron even managed to make up for their first awkward encounter, exchanging a hug and sharing an extended, friendly handshake at the parade.

"They are two men who disrupted their political systems and two men who understood that politics was not responding to those disaffected by globalization," said Jeff Lightfoot, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

"I think there's a certain degree of mutual admiration there," Lightfoot said.

High-stakes meeting

Trump chose to honor Macron with the first state visit of the Trump administration. In addition to the pomp and pageantry of a state dinner, Trump will take Macron on a sightseeing trip to George Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

The summit with the French president will give Trump an opportunity to showcase his diplomatic chops and his role as a statesman.

In some ways, the stakes may be higher for Macron than Trump because the French leader will need to show that his close relationship with Trump is producing some results, said Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Trump is not popular on the other side of the Atlantic and people are going to ask him why he's bothering to spend time with American president, if he doesn't get anything to show for it," said Kupchan, who served as a director for European affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama and Clinton administrations.

One top priority for Macron will be making the case for the United States to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. Trump set a May 12 deadline to make a decision on whether to pull out of the agreement.

It will be a tough sell. Trump has been vocal about his disdain for the deal and his new national security adviser, John Bolton, and his pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, are also not fans of the agreement.

Another looming deadline that will be up for discussion is the end of the current exemption for the European Union from U.S. import tariffs on steel and aluminum on May 1. Macron and the EU are advocating for a permanent exclusion from the duties.

Macron has "invested a lot in this relationship and it's not clear yet how much he's able to influence Donald Trump," Lightfoot said. "That's going to be a key question, I think, on this visit."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

All over Washington, France's flag is flying between the U.S. flag and the flag of the District of Columbia. President Trump is hosting the first official state visit of his presidency - something he's waited more than a year to do. That's unusual for a U.S. president. French President Emmanuel Macron arrived this afternoon at Joint Base Andrews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: Hello, everyone. This is a great honor and, I think, a very important state visit given the moment of our current environment.

SHAPIRO: NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is here to tell us more about the visit. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Take us back to their first visit because, initially, President Trump and Emmanuel Macron did not really hit it off, right?

RASCOE: Yeah, so this is the first state dinner. And that's a big honor for a visiting foreign leader, but you're right. Their first meeting did not go so well. This was at the NATO summit in Brussels last May, and they had this very intense, white-knuckled handshake. And even afterwards, Macron said in an interview about the handshake that it was not, quote, "innocent." And so that got a lot of attention and not really good - in a good way.

SHAPIRO: So if we're looking at how the relationship changed over time, a key pivot point seems to be President Trump and first lady Melania Trump's visit to Paris last July. Tell us about what happened there.

RASCOE: Yeah, so Macron invited Trump to visit Paris last July, and he really rolled out the red carpet for the Trumps. They had dinner at the Eiffel Tower. And President Trump was the guest of honor at the Bastille Day parade, which really impressed Trump. And he's planning to try to have something similar in the U.S...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...This year. So even though they're opposites in many ways - Macron and Trump - they do appreciate a good show and the way things look. So they were able to connect on that.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about how they're opposites in many ways because, politically and policy-wise, they disagree on a whole range of things.

RASCOE: They're really very different. So President Trump is the oldest U.S. president elected to his first term. Macron is the youngest French leader since Napoleon. President Trump was elected as a populist running an America-first agenda, whereas Macron is a centrist. And he really supports international cooperation. So in many ways, their policies are really polar opposites.

SHAPIRO: How do you expect that to play out during this week's state visit here in Washington?

RASCOE: Well, many of the topics that they're going to have to discuss - the Iran nuclear deal, Syria - these are issues where France and the U.S. have not been on the same page. And so they're going to have to deal with that. On Syria, France did join Britain and the U.S. in launching airstrikes against the Syrian government after a suspected chemical attack. But afterwards, Macron said that he had convinced Trump to keep U.S. troops in Syria - something that the White House quickly pushed back on. Macron also wants the United States to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.

That's something that President Trump has said he's not inclined to do, and there's a deadline on that next month. So there is some risk here for Macron. he doesn't want to look like he is putting all this investment into his relationship with Trump and not really getting much in return. So one of the key questions will be whether this relationship will actually lead to any substantive actions on the part of France and the U.S.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe, the newest member of our White House reporting team. Good to have you here. Thanks so much.

RASCOE: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.