Whether or not the president’s demands made any sense even from the most parochial American point of view, his demands were to a considerable extent accommodated. Trump had issued orders, sent his people out to war, and won victories for his idiosyncratic approach to foreign affairs. As late as 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, all the conferees thought that the facade of Western unity had survived another day, another summit.
Not even the president’s testy Saturday morning attack-CNN press conference shook the assembly. On his way to the podium, he winked and joked—a performer about to mount a show. “Trump’s gonna Trump,” an official from another G7 government quipped to the official to whom I spoke.
Like some nightmare family Thanksgiving from which the most difficult relative departs first, everybody breathed easier when the president at last left. Perhaps after all, it was sort of a success?
Then, something happened. From Air Force One, the president emitted a vituperative series of tweets aimed at his Canadian counterpart. What had triggered him? Had he belatedly seen that photograph of Angela Merkel looming over him? As many have said: Trump thinks in images, not ideas. Who could ever know? Trump probably does not know himself.
Ominously too: Once Trump started tweeting out abuse, the snakepit of hissing, warring aides around the president suddenly competed to amplify and deepen the quarrel. At 6:56 pm, National-Security Adviser John Bolton tweeted out his own version of the offending image of Merkel topping Trump—only with a caption reinterpreting the scene as proof of Trump’s strength and defiance. “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank. The President made it clear today. No more.” On pro-Trump Twitter—and then on pro-Trump TV and radio—that would almost instantly consolidate the new message line. The allies had tried to muscle the strong-willed president. But he had held firm.
Of course, all this blatantly contradicts yesterday’s message line. Remember, Trump holds authority to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum because—and only because—of a Kennedy-era special exemption to normal trade law for national-security purposes. Trump has signed documents attesting that he imposed tariffs to protect vital defense interests of the United States. Now he has changed his story. The tariffs on steel and aluminum from Germany, the U.K., Mexico, and all the others were not a national-security measure, but a retaliation for Canada’s restrictions on dairy imports. Whatever you think of Canada’s milk protectionism (and few Canadians who don’t directly profit from it will defend it), it is not a threat to U.S. national security.
But does Trump notice or care that he has given himself the lie? Surely not. Trump is recovering from two weeks of criticism that he went soft on the Chinese tech giant ZTE. A bipartisan group of 27 U.S. senators signed a letter criticizing him, and even Fox News chimed in. The president’s opponents suggested that his decision had been swayed by a state-owned Chinese company’s $500 million investment in an Indonesian project that had licensed Trump’s name.