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News Analysis: Despite Deep Policy Divides, Europe Trip Seen by Buoyant Trump as High Point

It was by no means an unqualified success.

Mr. Trump’s hard-line policy against abiding by international limits on greenhouse gas emissions made him an outlier among many of the other G-20 leaders here. His pressure on Germany over its contributions to NATO and his positions on immigration and trade have made him wildly unpopular here. His threat to impose tariffs on foreign steel prompted European officials to float the idea of taxing American bourbon imports. And he continued to flout tradition by trashing American institutions overseas, criticizing the press in the presence of leaders who have cracked down on the media in their own countries.

“This trip puts into stark relief how the U.S. has relinquished its role as the indispensable nation,” said Brian Fallon, the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

To much of the rest of the world, the gathering underscored the administration’s growing distance with, and isolation from, the other G-20 members.

But from the perspective of Mr. Trump’s team, the trip to Poland and Germany turned out to be a surprising early high point in his presidency, providing a brief but welcome respite from the forever wars in Washington. It left the president, who had been less than enthusiastic about coming, buoyant and feeling that there might still be a market for his hard-edge brand of conservative nationalism in supposedly inhospitable Europe after all.

“This week’s trip gave the country a very clear sense of the president’s foreign policy philosophy and reiterated the long-term objective of restoring America’s greatness on the world stage,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump campaign aide who still advises the president and his staff informally.

Mr. Trump returns to a deteriorating domestic situation, facing months of investigations into whether people in campaign colluded with Russia and what appears to be the decreasing likelihood that a deeply divided Senate majority can quickly pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

But he’ll always have Warsaw. The apex of the trip from the president’s perspective — and one of the most personally satisfying episodes of his term so far — was Mr. Trump’s powerful invocation of Western exceptionalism to a crowd of like-minded Polish nationalists on Thursday.

The speech was a blunt expression of Western defiance in the face of radical Islamic terrorism. It cast Mr. Trump as a modern-day inheritor of that struggle, a willing warrior in a clash of civilizations.

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” said Mr. Trump, dwarfed by a huge monument to ragtag Polish partisan army soldiers wearing helmets taken from dead German soldiers. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

Photo

Mr. Trump and President Andrzej Duda of Poland at a wreath-laying ceremony in Krasinski Square, in Warsaw. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Mr. Trump labored for hours on the wording in the address — widely praised as one of his most ideologically coherent by the conservative press — on the flight over with his chief speechwriter, Stephen Miller, and his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

General McMaster dealt with the fine print of security issues, and helped draft language challenging Russia to stop its “destabilizing” behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. Mr. Miller, an architect of the president’s controversial travel ban, saw Poland, with its large population of religious conservatives and center-right government, as an extension of Mr. Trump’s base back home. The speech had the sledgehammer directness of a Trump campaign address.

It was the president himself who inserted the element of defiance, dictating the line “The West will never be broken!” to Mr. Miller, according to a senior White House official involved in the process.

Peter Beinart, a liberal author and commentator, wrote in The Atlantic that Mr. Trump’s “whether the West has the will to survive” line was “perhaps the most shocking sentence in any presidential speech delivered on foreign soil in my lifetime.” He said it “only makes sense as a statement of racial and religious paranoia.”

Mr. Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was the most difficult moment of the trip for the American president and his fretting retinue. It did little to change the basic story line on Russian interference in the election, and Mr. Trump returns to months of investigations over his campaign’s connections to Moscow. But his team is casting the encounter as a pass-fail test successfully surmounted.

Mr. Trump’s own staff had not been quite sure what he planned to do when the two men sat down on Thursday, although he was leaning toward challenging Mr. Putin, aides said.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, the only high-level American official allowed in the room with the president, had urged his boss to hit Mr. Putin hard on the issue — but told an associate he was still stunned that Mr. Trump would begin the meeting, unceremoniously, by saying to the Russian leader, “I’m going to get this out of the way: Did you do this?”

Mr. Tillerson’s Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov, later told reporters that Mr. Trump hadn’t been nearly that confrontational on the question of Russian meddling. “U.S. President Trump said that he heard firm assertions from Russian President Putin that it is not true and that Russian authorities have not meddled in the elections,” Mr. Lavrov told journalists at the summit.

Mr. Trump “said that he accepts these assertions — that’s it,” the foreign minister said. He said Mr. Trump had complained about opponents who sought to “exaggerate” the level of Moscow’s involvement.

But a senior White House official briefed on the interaction by Mr. Tillerson said Mr. Trump had pressed Mr. Putin on the issue for about 40 minutes during the meeting, which lasted more than two hours. At times, the exchange became heated, the aide said, with Mr. Putin loudly demanding proof from a president who has himself repeatedly cast doubt on United States intelligence agencies for declaring that Russia tried to swing the election to Mr. Trump.

After they wrangled, Mr. Trump told Mr. Putin it was time to move on to other issues, especially Syria, Mr. Tillerson told reporters.

Mr. Trump has other intractable disagreements, especially with the G-20 host, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, on his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords and impose a travel ban.

But the president, who loves flouting convention, seems to be adjusting to the niceties of diplomatic tradition and appeared to be more relaxed and friendly than his tense debut during a meeting of NATO nations in May.

And while Mr. Trump’s aides said he has little in common politically with the anarchists and anti-globalism protesters in the streets of this gritty port city, they said the president intuitively understood their rage in a way that few other leaders at the summit could.

Correction: July 8, 2017

An earlier version of this article gave a wrong middle initial for the national security adviser. He is Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, not H. W. McMaster.

Source: NYT > World

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