Trump in the City of Books

It’s a good place:

Strongly influenced by European culture, Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of South America”. The city has the busiest live theater industry in Latin America, with scores of theaters and productions. In fact, every weekend, there are about 300 active theaters with plays… more than either London, New York or Paris…  Buenos Aires is the home of the Teatro Colón, an internationally rated opera house. There are several symphony orchestras and choral societies. The city has numerous museums related to history, fine arts, modern arts, decorative arts, popular arts, sacred art, arts and crafts, theater and popular music, as well as the preserved homes of noted art collectors, writers, composers and artists. The city is home to hundreds of bookstores, public libraries and cultural associations (it is sometimes called “the city of books”) as well as the largest concentration of active theatres in Latin America. It has a world-famous zoo and botanical garden, a large number of landscaped parks and squares, as well as churches and places of worship of many denominations, many of which are architecturally noteworthy.

In fact, Buenos Aires looks like Paris – the same Haussmann architecture – and it’s just as sophisticated and cool. It’s Jorge Luis Borges’ city and Pope Francis’ home town. The very cool Gato Barbieri started out there. His jazz score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris was way cool. Buenos Aires is a fine place, as good as Paris.

What was Donald Trump doing in the City of Books? He had to go there, even if that’s not his kind of place. And things didn’t go well. The New York Times’ Mark Landler and Peter Baker explain that:

He didn’t sit down with two of his favorite strongmen. He downgraded a meeting with one ally and postponed one with another. He exchanged icy smiles with the prime minister of Canada, who had threatened to skip the signing of a new trade agreement with the United States and Mexico because of lingering bitterness over steel tariffs.

And President Trump was preoccupied by legal clouds back home, tweeting angrily that there was nothing illicit about his business ventures in Russia, a day after his former lawyer Michael D. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the extent and duration of those dealings.

For Mr. Trump, his first day at the summit meeting of the Group of 20 industrialized nations in Buenos Aires was a window into his idiosyncratic statecraft after nearly two years in office.

And that has come down to this:

His “America First” foreign policy has not become “America Alone” exactly, but it has left him with a strange patchwork of partners at these global gatherings. Mr. Trump canceled a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, citing the country’s recent naval clash with Ukraine. Nor did he meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, though he did exchange pleasantries with the prince, whom he has pulled close despite charges that the prince had a role in the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The president did meet with the leaders of two Pacific allies, Australia and Japan, as well as with the prime minister of India. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, one of Mr. Trump’s most eager courtiers among foreign leaders, congratulated him on his “historic victory in the midterm election” – an election in which Democrats seized control of the House.

Donald Trump looked puzzled. Was that a dig, was Shinzo Abe being ironic, mocking him? Or did he think Trump was a fool who’d actually believes that? That was awkward, but there was this:

In purely social terms, Mr. Trump’s day may well have peaked at 7:30 a.m. when he greeted Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, at the Casa Rosada. The pink presidential palace is famous for the balcony from which Eva Perón once spoke to adoring crowds in the plaza below.

“We’ve known each other a long time,” said Mr. Trump, who was involved in a Manhattan real estate deal with Mr. Macri’s father in the 1980s. “That was in my civilian days,” said a nostalgic president, who has talked recently about how much he misses his hometown.

And then he sang a chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” – or he should have, but he didn’t. Still, this was a sad day:

The Group of 20 is a motley congregation under any circumstances, divided between liberal democratic leaders, who are greater in number, and autocrats, who often drive the agenda. Mr. Trump, who was making his second visit to the G-20, dramatizes its split nature, having alienated European allies and cultivated friendly ties with several of the strongmen.

This year, however, the autocrats proved as problematic as the allies. Despite professing his loyalty to Prince Mohammed only two weeks ago, Mr. Trump did not find time for a formal session with him. The president’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, chalked up the omission to Mr. Trump’s “full to overflowing” schedule of meetings with other leaders.

When the president encountered Prince Mohammed on the sidelines of the meeting, “they exchanged pleasantries,” according to a White House official, as Mr. Trump did “with nearly every leader in attendance.” Mr. Trump later told reporters: “We had no discussion. We might, but we had none.”

Donald Trump was all alone. He’s called all our usual allies fools and has done his best to humiliate each and every one of them, and has kept saying that Putin and the Crown Prince are wonderful, but now, since they do murder journalists and such, he needed to tone down his admiration for them a bit, which leaves him alone:

As if to prove that the prince was not persona non grata, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry posted photos of him chatting with President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, though not Mr. Trump. He even exchanged a modified high-five with Mr. Putin before they sat down next to each other at the first session of the leaders.

Donald Trump watched from the sidelines looking a bit foolish:

After months of trying to arrange another date, Mr. Trump abruptly and unhappily pulled the plug on a scheduled meeting with Mr. Putin in Buenos Aires, citing the recent escalation in Russian tensions with Ukraine.

The Kremlin, which learned about the cancellation via Twitter, like the rest of the world, has been tweaking Mr. Trump in response. A Russian official told reporters that the real reason Mr. Trump canceled was the revelation that he had been trying to build a tower in Moscow much later into his presidential campaign than previously acknowledged.

On Friday, Mr. Trump insisted again to reporters that the meeting was scrapped “on the basis of what took place with respect to the ships and the sailors.”

But he didn’t want to confront Putin on that, dressing him down. Donald Trump doesn’t like confrontation with stronger people. He was hiding. Everyone saw that, and it wasn’t just Putin:

He downgraded a meeting with another ally, Mr. Moon of South Korea, to a “pull aside,” diplomatic jargon for a less formal encounter. The White House did not say why it had made that change, though Mr. Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea has bogged down in recent weeks. The White House said Mr. Trump is still hoping for a follow-up summit meeting with President Kim Jong-un of North Korea.

Don’t expect that:

“In previous meetings, Trump has been more focused on undermining the very notion of a global agenda, let alone affirming the U.S.’s leadership role in defining it,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “But in this one, with the exception of his working dinner with Xi, he is not even doing the key bilateral meetings.”

William J. Burns, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, said Mr. Trump was dismissive of traditional diplomacy and appeared distracted by the investigation of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

“The net result is not just a missed opportunity,” Mr. Burns said, “but the acceleration of international disorder and the long-term weakening of American influence.”

Donald Trump has been burning bridges:

He has called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada “very dishonest and weak.”

He has also, perhaps jokingly, accused Canada – which came into formal being in 1867 – of burning down the White House during the War of 1812.

But on Friday morning, President Trump, Mr. Trudeau and Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, signed a North American trade pact after 14 months of acrimonious negotiations.

The leaders of the United States and Canada appeared cordial – Mr. Trudeau even addressed his counterpart as “Donald”- even though their words and body language in recent months have suggested that their once-warm rapport had become as icy as a Canadian winter.

That’s over:

In his remarks, Mr. Trudeau urged Mr. Trump to remove punishing tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from Canada, saying they imposed a “major obstacle” on the Canadian economy. As Mr. Trudeau spoke, Mr. Trump appeared stone-faced, but broke into a pensive smile at one point. When Mr. Trudeau ended his comments, the American president shook his hand with brevity that contrasted with his usual vigorous greetings.

This has not gone well for some time:

In June, after Mr. Trudeau ended a two-day Group of 7 summit meeting in Charlevoix, Quebec, by saying Canadians “are nice” but wouldn’t be “bullied on trade,” Mr. Trump responded on Air Force One by accusing him of being feeble and making false statements. Just in case the message wasn’t clear, Peter Navarro, the director of the White House trade office, suggested on Fox News Sunday that there was “a special place in hell” for Mr. Trudeau.

Canadians were irate. Mr. Trudeau, who has attracted adulation on the global stage, is a sometimes polarizing figure at home and he faces an election next year. But Mr. Trump’s barrage of insults momentarily united most Canadians behind him, and his approval ratings jumped.

Some Canadians even canceled summer vacations in Maine or California and boycotted American products like Twizzlers. Others insisted on using Canadian-produced kidney beans to make “Trump-free chili.”

They’ve had enough:

Many Canadians regard Mr. Trump as a bully; a perception that intensified after the American leader imposed the steel and aluminum tariffs in May. Mr. Trump framed the move as necessary for national security, prompting Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, to retort that “the national security pretext is absurd and frankly insulting to Canadians.”

They won’t forget. No one forgets being humiliated. But that cuts both ways. John Schindler argues that Trump won’t forget this:

This was the week that the bottom fell out of Donald Trump’s presidency. After almost two years of White House denials that Candidate Trump had any ties to Russia in 2016, that turns out to be just one more Trumpian lie. No amount of “NO COLLUSION” tweets from the Oval Office can undo the damage that has now been done.

The decisive moment was the appearance of Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime personal attorney, in Federal court in New York on Thursday to admit he lied to Congress about Trump’s commercial interests in Russia…Cohen reached out to Russians multiple times during 2016 in futile efforts to get Trump Tower Moscow going, at last. Donald Trump sought to develop “his” luxury tower in Russia’s capital for decades. This was the reason for Trump’s flashy trip to the Soviet Union way back in the summer of 1987. Three decades later, Trump Tower Moscow remained a mirage that the presidential contender was determined to make reality. This clearly mattered more to Trump than winning the White House.

That forlorn quest will cost President Trump more than he could possibly imagine.

It seems that Trump got trapped:

President Trump’s biggest worry isn’t Bob Mueller but Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin’s displeasure with its erstwhile friend, rising for months, has risen to hazardous levels for the White House. The breaking point is Ukraine. Last weekend, Putin’s Federal Security Service engineered an armed confrontation in the Black Sea, grabbing two Ukrainian navy patrol boats and their crews as booty.

Trump’s timid response to this crisis – “We do not like what’s happening either way. We don’t like what’s happening, and hopefully it will get straightened out” – disappointed Ukraine and its Western well-wishers while infuriating Moscow, which expected Trump to help Russia, or at least keep his mouth shut.

And now he’s all alone in the City of Books. Michael Hirsh, writing at the Foreign Policy site, notes Trump’s dilemma:

President Donald Trump flew to Argentina on Thursday to attend the G-20 summit – a forum born of American weakness – at what is perhaps the weakest moment of his presidency…

The Cohen admission reopened a host of questions about Trump’s ties with Russia that the president has, in recent days, been trying to squelch. All of a sudden, the soon-to-be Democratic-controlled House of Representatives may be forced to examine anew whether Trump lied his way into high office – a potentially impeachable offense – and whether he is obstructing justice by refusing to appoint a new attorney general after he dismissed Jeff Sessions and removed oversight of the special counsel’s Russia investigation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Trump may also be vulnerable to charges that he lied to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating the president’s Russia ties.

And this is bad place to be in that fix:

The G-20 is a recent and somewhat odd institution – probably the first major international institution to be created without a dominant U.S. role as parent or midwife (though Washington did help oversee member selection). Convened in 1999 by Europe and Canada as a gathering of finance ministers and central bankers and largely ignored for the next decade, it won a battlefield promotion during the financial crisis of 2008, when it was elevated by common consent to summit status because it included China, South Korea, and other important U.S. creditor nations. It has since turned into the world’s preeminent economic forum, eclipsing the G-7 gathering of leading industrial nations.

The G-20 thus came of age amid U.S. weakness and culpability, at a time when the world was pointing fingers at Wall Street as the chief culprit in the Great Recession. With so many cooks tending the broth and no real leadership, consensus on trade, capital rules and other issues generally eludes the G-20 leaders. Above all, Washington has rarely been able to get its way on any major issue, as it so often has at the G-7, NATO, or the United Nations Security Council.

In short, the G-20 is not a place where anything gets solved or resolved, and so it is with Trump:

Trump will strut his way through the G-20 sessions as is his wont, but he won’t be able to avoid a lot of uncomfortable encounters. What will he say to British Prime Minister Theresa May, now that Trump has offhandedly trashed the Brexit deal she spent two years negotiating? How will he sidestep Mohammed bin Salman, who might have expected at least a meet-and-greet for the $400 billion investment he promised? Or French President Emmanuel Macron, now that Trump has all but called publicly for the right-wing nationalists to defeat him in the next election?

That means that all that’s left is this:

The one big meeting that may go forward is Trump’s dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump, who may be worried that the U.S. economic boom will tail off on his watch – he has been relentlessly criticizing his own Federal Reserve chief, Jerome Powell, for edging up interest rates – suggested before his departure on Thursday that he might be close to a deal to end his tariff war with China.

“I think we’re very close to doing something with China, but I don’t know that I want to do it,” Trump told reporters.

He may not want to do it. But he certainly wants to change the headlines.

That may not be possible now. Politico notes just who generates the headlines now:

The strongmen are rampaging across the world stage with impunity, and they know it.

Only moments after European Council President Donald Tusk used a news conference to urge G20 leaders to address Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia’s evident disregard for human rights, video footage of the leaders’ arrivals showed Russian President Vladimir Putin slapping hands in jovial fashion with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as they took their seats for the summit’s opening session.

Someone else is leading the world now:

If Putin was feeling any concern about Tusk’s vow that Western economic sanctions against Russia would be extended yet again in January, he did not give the smallest hint of it. And if the crown prince was worried in the slightest about the international condemnation that he has faced in recent weeks, there was also no indication as he adjusted his gold-trimmed thawb and took his seat at the conference table.

Indeed, the only tough guy in Argentina who seems to be having the slightest trouble these days is U.S. President Donald Trump.

Things have changed:

For Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the evident self-assuredness of the Russian and Saudi leaders highlights just how powerless the West has been in responding to what it views as grave transgressions of international norms.

“This is a difficult moment for international cooperation,” Tusk said at a joint news conference with Juncker. “I would like to appeal to the leaders to use this summit, including their bilateral and informal exchanges, to seriously discuss real issues such as trade wars, the tragic situation in Syria and Yemen and the Russian aggression in Ukraine. I see no reason why the G20 leaders shouldn’t have a meaningful discussion about solving these problems – especially because all the instruments lie in their hands. The only condition is good will.”

Tusk, in an unsubtle jab at the Saudi prince, continued, “We also cannot underestimate other issues which remain difficult for some leaders, such as human rights, freedom of press and basic safety of journalists. It is our obligation, as the EU, to take this opportunity and press our partners to respect these basic principles.”

Only one guy stood up to the thugs:

French President Emmanuel Macron interacted briefly with the Saudi prince, and made an effort to rebuke him.

A video of their encounter picked up the prince telling Macron “don’t worry” and the French president replying, “I do worry. I am worried.”

Later in the conversation Macron added, “You never listen to me.” And the prince replied, “I will listen, of course.”

Asked about the conversation, a French official told reporters that Macron had conveyed “a very firm” message.

Emmanuel Macron did what Donald Trump wouldn’t do, or couldn’t do, or was too angry or too depressed and too confused to do – but France hasn’t been a world power since the eighteenth century. Emmanuel Macron’s encounter with the Saudi prince was a bit sad. The United States is the one sole superpower now. But now, somehow it isn’t. Donald Trump got lost in Buenos Aires, the City of Books. Donald Trump doesn’t read.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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