The Art of Flattering Donald Trump

World leaders including Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May, Queen Elizabeth II, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, and Justin Trudeau attend a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Portsmouth, England.
World leaders including Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May, Queen Elizabeth II, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, and Justin Trudeau attend a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Portsmouth, England.Alex Brandon / AP

PARIS, France—When Donald Trump visited Beijing in 2017, China treated him to an official dinner inside the Forbidden City, an honor no American president had gotten since Mao Zedong took power.

Trump, a wrestling enthusiast, awarded a specially made, 70-pound trophy at the end of a sumo match during a trip to Japan last month. And this past week, the British royal family lavished Trump with courtesies in a state visit, capped by a Buckingham Palace dinner that his adult children gleefully chronicled in their Instagram feeds.

American presidents aren’t treated shabbily when they travel abroad. China, after all, cleared away tourists for Barack Obama’s trip to the Great Wall in 2009, while George W. Bush received the first state visit that Britain ever bestowed on a U.S. president. But nations are pampering Trump with an ardor and a personal touch that few of his predecessors enjoyed. Among foreign leaders, the working assumption seems to be that Trump expects and needs shows of devotion, and that if he isn’t diligently courted during his visits, he might leave diplomatic wreckage strewn in his wake.

The strategy doesn’t seem to be paying off, though, diplomats and foreign-policy experts say. Trump will cheerfully accept the epic levels of hospitality he’s shown, but he isn’t necessarily going to rethink the certitudes he brought to the job. Halfway through his term, he is waging a trade war with China, blaming outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May for mishandling Brexit, and faulting allies that have feted him for not spending more on defense.

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At a D-Day ceremony above the Normandy beaches Thursday, Trump traded hugs with French President Emmanuel Macron, one of the world leaders who has invested heavily in the idea that the 45th president can be won over with pomp and ceremony. The two presidents entered together on a red carpet and later, with their wives, watched a display of French air power from a viewing stand next to the English Channel. In one maneuver, French planes spewed red, white, and blue smoke as Trump watched appreciatively.

In the summer of 2017, Macron hosted his American counterpart for a two-day visit to France centered on a Bastille Day military parade that made a deep impression on Trump. He came away determined to hold a similar event in Washington, D.C., only eventually calling it off the following year, citing the expense.

Still, Trump has been hostile toward France’s leadership. He has ridiculed Macron for suggesting that Europe needs its own army as a bulwark against Russia, and said that France instead needs to spend more on the NATO alliance. The French, Trump tweeted, “were starting to learn German in Paris” before U.S. forces arrived to save their country in the two world wars.

Britain has had a similar experience. British officialdom prepared carefully for the three-day visit that ended Wednesday with a D-Day ceremony in the English harbor town of Portsmouth. They wanted Trump to leave feeling lionized. “There was an understanding between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace that this is a really big deal and we need to put our best foot forward—that this is a man who would really appreciate this and needs it to be special,” a British official told me, requesting anonymity to speak more freely about internal discussions. “We’re very aware that he enjoys the pomp and ceremony and signs of respect for him and his office.”

At Buckingham Palace on Monday night, more members of the royal family took part in the procession into the banquet than in previous state visits, the British official said. Trump’s adult children also snapped up invitations for a dinner that left them exultant. Ivanka Trump, the president’s eldest daughter and a senior White House aide, stood with Prince Harry, the queen’s grandson, during an exhibition at the palace.

“The younger royals were there to sort of pull the younger Trump royals into a relationship that will continue after this,” says Kathleen Burk, a specialist in Anglo-American relations at University College London.

Trump was gracious toward May during his stay, though he couldn’t resist needling her in an interview he gave to British newspapers right before the trip, commenting that she hadn’t been tough enough when bargaining with the European Union on the matter of Brexit.

Macron and May are not the only ones who have faltered in courting Trump. While flying home from Europe on Friday, the president—locked in a trade dispute with Beijing—heaped more criticism on Chinese trade practices. “China is subsidizing its product in order that it can continue to be sold in the USA,” he tweeted from Air Force One. (The Chinese “are realistic enough to know that by [ingratiating themselves with Trump] you don’t necessarily get tangible benefits,” Ming Wan, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, told me.)

Apart from flattery, foreign leaders have also focused on another imperative: avoiding provocations that might trigger Trump’s outrage. Before a G7 summit of developed nations in Italy in 2017, administration aides briefed some foreign officials on how best to confront Trump about climate change. By that point, he had announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, and had long been dismissive of the threat. In the briefing, the Trump team advised officials not to contradict or lecture the president, saying the best way to make their case was instead to talk about the potential impact on jobs, recalls Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States.

China has taken this approach. In disagreeing with Trump, it has tended not to personalize the issue or say anything that he might deem insulting. “The Chinese know that Trump is unpredictable and mercurial, and so they will certainly try not to attack him personally—and they haven’t,” Ming said. “The Chinese are obviously mad, but the response has been less pointed and singularly more measured.”

There’s always a nagging feeling when Trump is on the world stage that things could quickly go bad: an international incident of some kind, a diplomatic blowup, an ill-timed tweet that inflames a volatile situation. Nothing like that happened on Trump’s trip to Europe. He delivered a statesmanlike speech marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day (after earlier in the day celebrating the ratings woes of CNN and MSNBC). And en route home, Trump’s ire was directed at other targets: NASA, he tweeted, should stop talking about a return trip to Earth’s moon and think bigger.