The world is a confusing place. The surfing is good out here in Malibu. But some say the surfing is even better in Ireland and there’s this – Why Biarritz is an Absolute Must for Surfers – and Biarritz is right next to Bayonne, but not the industrial armpit of central New Jersey because the Bayonne in France is kind of cool. Those are two different cities. Keep all of this straight. Surf’s up in Ireland, and in Biarritz – which is nowhere near New Jersey – which is why Donald Trump seemed kind of lost at the G7 summit in Biarritz. He may not have known quite where he was. There were surfers and he was next door to Bayonne and everyone was speaking French. All of that can be disconcerting.
He was disconcerted. The New York Times’ Michael Shear reports that:
President Trump offered deeply contradictory signals about his trade war with China on Sunday, ending the day by escalating his threats of higher tariffs even as he remained isolated from fellow world leaders on a strategy that has rattled the global economy.
A day after defending his authority to order American companies out of China, Mr. Trump started Sunday by conceding that he was having “second thoughts” about a new round of levies on Chinese goods. Within hours, he abruptly reversed himself again, saying that he only regretted not raising tariffs even higher.
His staff spoke to him. They must have asked him if he realized what he had just said. He had pretty much said that now he wasn’t sure if any of the tariffs had been a good idea in the first place. He couldn’t say that. He despises weakness of any kind. He has no second thoughts, ever. That’s his brand. And this was an emergency. His new press secretary went out and said that’s not what he meant at all – he meant he was thinking he should have doubled or tripled the tariffs to REALLY hurt the Chinese. He has been wondering if he had been too nice a guy. More pain would change everything. His chief economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, went on every Sunday talk show to say the same thing – the president was having second thoughts about not inflicting real pain now. And then, finally, the president said the same thing. And he added that the “Fake News” people had purposely misquoted him, by quoting him accurately without reporting what he really meant – which everyone knew. Why would he have to SAY that? This wasn’t fair.
That’s how things went:
The president’s rhetorical whipsaw came against the backdrop of tense but cordial meetings in Biarritz, France. It injected fresh uncertainty into Mr. Trump’s efforts to try to change Chinese behavior by gambling on the fate of hundreds of billions of dollars in products that flow between the two countries.
“I think they respect the trade war,” Mr. Trump said of his allies assembled here for the Group of 7 annual gathering.
Not one of the other nations said that they respect his trade war. He said he thought they did. That seemed to be his hunch. He kind of sensed that. No one else did:
Allies of the United States have long agreed that China’s policies are a threat, but there is little consensus behind Mr. Trump’s approach, and a deep nervousness that the president is going to tip the global economy into recession, hitting already trembling European economies particularly hard.
But far from using the gathering here to assemble a united front against Chinese trade policies, Mr. Trump set himself apart once again by making it clear he has no intention of backing down.
He has no intention of assembling a united front against Chinese trade policies. It will be more and more massive tariffs until the pain is so intense that the Chinese are ruined and humiliated and do exactly what he says and tell the world he’s wonderful, and then he’ll kick them in the face again. He doesn’t need these Euro-weenies to do that. And there will be no recession. He says so.
So everyone backed off, but not quite:
The heads of state from some of the world’s leading democracies treated Mr. Trump delicately at the summit in the beach resort in the south of France, hoping to avoid an angry outburst. But several challenged Mr. Trump publicly on the issues of trade, North Korea and Russia.
Even Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister who sees eye to eye with the American leader more than the other leaders, publicly chided Mr. Trump about the value of free trade and the dangers of an extended confrontation over trade.
“We’re in favor of trade peace on the whole,” Mr. Johnson told the president, in a mild-mannered rebuke of Mr. Trump’s embrace of tariffs as a bludgeon against allies and adversaries alike. “The U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade and that’s what we want to see.”
Trump laughed. What does he care what Boris thinks? He’s president. Boris isn’t, but Shear points out the obvious:
Signs of a weakening global economy that has renewed fears of recession in the United States and Europe have underscored the dangers inherent in the president’s go-it-alone attempts to confront Chinese policies that even his critics concede are damaging to American interests.
Everyone knows this is not working, but Donald Trump is a difficult man:
This year, Mr. Trump used Twitter to take exception to the suggestion by “the Fake and Disgusting news” that his relations with his counterparts were once again strained, insisting that “we are having very good meetings, the Leaders are getting along very well.”
But there were clear points of contention, Russia among them.
Russia was suspended from the club’s meetings in 2014 after it seized Crimea from Ukraine and supported militias trying to break parts of eastern Ukraine away from the country. Mr. Trump said last week that he thought bringing Moscow back into the fold would be “appropriate,” drawing quick rebuffs from France, Germany and Britain.
Administration officials downplayed the issue, noting that Russia had not asked to rejoin the club. But on Sunday, Mr. Trump said the United States, as the host of next year’s meeting, might invite Russia to participate. He said the question of whether to invite President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next year prompted a “lively” discussion behind closed doors.
Of course it did. If he invites Russia next year, in Washington, no one else might show up. They must have told him that. He probably told them that would be fine – then it would be Russia and the United States, just him an Putin, the only two countries in the world that really matter and the only two leaders in the world that really matter, side by side, deciding everything. They’d be sorry. That might have been the “lively discussion” behind closed doors.
Perter Baker has more:
For a day, at least, everyone was on their best behavior when the cameras were on, eager to present a show of bonhomie after so many previous meetings ended in discord.
But behind the scenes at the annual gathering of some of the world’s leading powers, President Trump still found himself at odds with his counterparts on Sunday over issues like trade, climate change, North Korea, Russia and Iran.
Ever so gingerly, as if determined not to rouse the American’s well-known temper, the other Group of 7 leaders sought to nudge him toward their views on the pressing issues of the day, or at least register their differences – while making sure to wrap them in a French crepe of flattery, as they know he prefers.
It was far from clear the messages were received, or in any case at least welcome.
But it had to be done:
Like other presidents, and perhaps even more so, Mr. Trump tends to hear what he wants to hear at settings like this, either tuning out contrary voices or disregarding them. Through hard experience, other leaders have concluded that direct confrontation can backfire, so they have taken to soft-pedaling disagreements.
That’s what Boris did:
Even Trump favorites like Boris Johnson, the populist new prime minister of Britain, tread carefully. On Sunday, Mr. Johnson expressed qualms about Mr. Trump’s trade war with China, but appeared to take pains not to offend the easily offended president.
As the two met for the first time since the new prime minister’s installation a month ago, Mr. Trump said none of the other leaders in Biarritz had expressed concern about his guns-blazing trade war.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I haven’t heard that at all, no. I think they respect the trade war.” He added: “The answer is, nobody has told me that, and nobody would tell me that.”
Why would they tell him that? They just want to keep him calm:
For his part, Mr. Trump largely stuck to diplomatic niceties, refraining from hate-tweeting his colleagues and leaving aside his caustic complaints about their military spending, economic policies or even French wine. He did not repeat his aides’ criticism of France for focusing the meeting on “niche issues” like climate change and African development rather than the global economy.
While the president relishes confrontation, he tends to avoid conflict in person, saving his vitriol for long-distance social media blasts.
In short, he’ll get around to the nastiness later, from a distance. Then he’ll let them have it. No one cares about climate change or Africa or anything else. They care about how wonderful the American economy is and how wonderful he is. But it’s not that easy:
The dinner discussion on Saturday night focused on Iran, an issue on which Mr. Trump broke with American allies by abandoning the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Mr. Macron, who has tried to resolve the dispute, emerged thinking he had a consensus to convey to Iran: that the leaders agreed it should not have a nuclear weapon or destabilize the region.
But when Mr. Trump was asked about that on Sunday, he looked blank, as if he did not recall such a conversation.
“No, I haven’t discussed that,” he said. Within hours, the Iranian foreign minister was making a surprise visit to Biarritz, invited by Mr. Macron, while American officials maintained a grim silence.
That was odd, but Macron was making a point. Those folks want to talk. Here they are. What are you going to do, Donald? Macron can be nasty too.
Others were more careful:
In his inaugural encounter with Mr. Trump as peers, Mr. Johnson demonstrated that he had learned from the difficulties his predecessor had with the American president. Even as he spoke out on the trade wars, Mr. Johnson was careful to first heap praise on Mr. Trump.
“Look, I just want to say I congratulate the president on everything that the American economy is achieving,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s fantastic to see that.”
Having dispensed with the compliments, he noted his country’s experience on trade.
“The U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade and that’s what we want to see,” Mr. Johnson said. “We don’t like tariffs on the whole.”
Mr. Trump took it in stride, but could not restrain himself entirely from poking back.
“How about the last three years?” he said, challenging Mr. Johnson with a smile and referring to Britain’s anemic economy of late. “Don’t talk about the last three. Two hundred, I agree with you.”
Mr. Johnson laughed and left it at that. Any further disagreement would wait until the cameras left the room.
And that’s how it went:
The president found himself striking a different note than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan regarding the recent string of short-range missile tests by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Mr. Trump brushed them off, saying that while he was “not happy” about them, “he’s not in violation of an agreement.”
By that, Mr. Trump meant that Mr. Kim had not violated the understanding the two leaders had when they first met a year ago in Singapore that North Korea would not test long-range ballistic missiles or nuclear explosives.
But while Mr. Trump may not care about short-range missiles, Mr. Abe does, since they can easily reach Japan. He pointed out that the recent round of tests “clearly violates the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions” and called them “extremely regrettable.”
Trump shrugged. He likes that Kim fellow. He’s said he loves him, and he thinks Kim loves him. And then Trump said the he and Abe had agreed on principles for a new trade pact. Abe said no, that’s not finished yet. Again, Trump shrugged. They’d get there.
Donald Trump is a difficult man, and The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas saw that as all this unfolded:
At the Group of Seven meeting in Biarritz, France, there are, in effect, two different summits under way – one that’s happening in President Donald Trump’s mind, and another that is actually happening on the ground; there’s the summit Trump is trying to will into existence, and the summit unfolding in real time.
To hear Trump tell it, predictions that the weekend summit would be contentious were all wrong. Only the “Fake and Disgusting News” would conclude that his relations with the other leaders meeting in the coastal resort were “very tense,” he tweeted, when, in fact, they were “getting along very well.” His counterparts, he insists, are coming forward and agreeing with him that it’s a good idea to readmit Russia to the group, he said today (it was tossed out in 2014 after it annexed Crimea). He’s hearing broad support for his trade dispute with China and a lunch visit yesterday with Emmanuel Macron was the best he’s had yet with his French counterpart, he said.
But none of Trump’s version of events holds up:
Pressed to name the other leaders who endorse the notion of letting Russia back in, for example, Trump demurred. “I could, but I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said.
Trump’s account is even at odds with what his own government has been telling reporters: One U.S. official said that the leaders agreed that the country wasn’t yet deserving of an invitation, according to The Wall Street Journal. A foreign diplomat who represents one of the G7 nations told me, speaking on condition of anonymity, that Russia has done nothing since its banishment that would warrant its inclusion in a club of advanced economies with democratic systems. What’s more, senior administration officials told reporters last week before Trump left for France that Russia hadn’t even asked to be readmitted to the G7.
All of this was obvious, and reported with alarm or amusement. Trump told his story, and that worries Nicholas:
Trump’s narrative encapsulates a larger problem: whether he can be taken at face value, means what he says, and knows his own mind.
Trump did say he had second thoughts about his tariffs, and later said he had no second thoughts at all, and then said he actually did have second thoughts – perhaps he should have been even meaner and nastier. But that led to another question:
The White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, soon put out a statement: Trump’s comment had been “greatly misinterpreted,” she said. His regret is only that “he’s not raising the tariffs higher.” Grisham’s statement elides an important question: Whose fault is it that Trump’s comment was “misinterpreted”?
How is anyone to know for sure when White House policy is articulated largely through bursts of 280-character tweets, interspersed with screeds about the latest personnel moves at Fox News? (Trump found time today to send out a tweet complaining about Fox’s hiring of the longtime Democratic operative Donna Brazile.)
That’s the question. How is anyone to know what White House policy is? Nicholas, however, sees another possibility:
Trump meant what he said and is in fact having second thoughts when it comes to China. That sort of thing has happened before. Let’s go back in time – all the way to last week. After the Washington Post wrote last Monday that Trump was considering a payroll tax cut as a way to boost the economy, the White House put out a statement denying that was the case. The following day, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office he was indeed mulling such a tax cut. By Wednesday, Trump said the idea was dead.
So who knows if Grisham’s statement is the last word or whether Trump, in the end, may pull back, as Boris Johnson advised.
At stake is more than just Trump’s reputation, but the fate of the world’s two largest economies. “It seems like he speaks off the cuff and says things and then that, in turn, becomes policy,” Simon Lester, a trade expert at the Cato Institute, told me. “Not because he put any thought into it initially, but just because he said something and then has to follow it through.”
But, as Jonathan Swan reports, he can be stopped:
President Trump has suggested multiple times to senior Homeland Security and national security officials that they explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes from hitting the United States, according to sources who have heard the president’s private remarks and been briefed on a National Security Council memorandum that recorded those comments.
It seems that Donald Trump got all excited:
During one hurricane briefing at the White House, Trump said, “I got it. I got it. Why don’t we nuke them?” -According to one source who was there: “They start forming off the coast of Africa, as they’re moving across the Atlantic, we drop a bomb inside the eye of the hurricane and it disrupts it. Why can’t we do that?”
Asked how the briefer reacted, the source recalled he said something to the effect of, “Sir, we’ll look into that.”
Trump replied by asking incredulously how many hurricanes the U.S. could handle and reiterating his suggestion that the government intervene before they make landfall.
The briefer “was knocked back on his heels,” the source in the room added. “You could hear a gnat fart in that meeting. People were astonished. After the meeting ended, we thought, ‘What the f—? What do we do with this?'”
They decided to say they’d look into this and hoped he’d forget all about this, which he did. That’s what one can do when the president has a “brilliant” (absurd) idea. Do nothing. Wait. How is anyone to know what White House policy is? Wait.
And this was an absurd idea:
Trump didn’t invent this idea. The notion that detonating a nuclear bomb over the eye of a hurricane could be used to counteract convection currents dates to the Eisenhower era, when it was floated by a government scientist.
The idea keeps resurfacing in the public even though scientists agree it won’t work. The myth has been so persistent that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. government agency that predicts changes in weather and the oceans, published an online fact sheet for the public under the heading “Tropical Cyclone Myths Page.”
The page states: “Apart from the fact that this might not even alter the storm, this approach neglects the problem that the released radioactive fallout would fairly quickly move with the trade winds to affect land areas and cause devastating environmental problems. Needless to say, this is not a good idea.”
Well, yes, the east coast and Gulf coast would not be hit by any hurricane that was blown apart by a massive nuclear explosion. There’d be no hurricane. They’d just get a day or more of heavy highly-radioactive rain which would render that part of United States uninhabitable for ten thousand years or more.
But wait, there’s more:
About 3 weeks after Trump’s 2016 election, National Geographic published an article titled, “Nuking Hurricanes: The Surprising History of a Really Bad Idea.” It found, among other problems, that dropping a nuclear bomb into a hurricane would be banned under the terms of the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.
That treaty is still in force. And none of this became policy. We won’t nuke hurricanes. But the tariffs became policy. His staff should have waited. He’s often confused. And that sums up Biarritz this year. There were surfers and he was next door to Bayonne and everyone was speaking French. And the six other nations tried to humor him. The idea might have been to wait him out. He’ll settle down. He won’t continue to press hard for absurd ideas.
Perhaps that’s still possible. But perhaps that was never possible. How long does one have to wait?