Tensions over journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder sidelined Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as world leaders gathered during the G-20. (Reuters)
BUENOS AIRES — President Trump managed to spend two days in the company of world leaders he has long antagonized without any visible eruptions.
There were no feuds, or at least none publicly detected, as Air Force One took off from Buenos Aires on Saturday night. Trump signed on to a statement of principles with the other leaders at the Group of 20 summit, the kind of document he refused to endorse at a summit in Canada a few months earlier. He made nice with the European leader he most regularly trashes, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
And the biggest diplomatic faux pas to occur here did not even involve the gaffe-prone American president. It was the autocratic bro-shake between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
A president who prides himself on being the ultimate disrupter on the global stage instead played the part of reluctant diplomat here in Argentina, at the risk of making himself something of a non-factor.
Trump curtailed his ambitions by canceling his meeting with Putin and calling off a scheduled news conference, leaving as his marquee event a high-stakes working dinner to discuss trade Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. After months of harsh rhetoric, threats and insults about China, Trump accentuated only the positive as he sat for an Argentine steak dinner with Xi.
Trump agreed to hold off on raising existing tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese imports for 90 days, pending a new round of trade talks later this month, while Xi agreed to designate fentanyl as a controlled substance and for China to purchase a substantial amount of U.S. agricultural product, according to the White House.
“This was an amazing and productive meeting with unlimited possibilities for both the United States and China,” Trump said in a Saturday night statement from aboard Air Force One.
The meeting with Xi, like Trump’s other tête-à-têtes, was overshadowed by news back home — first former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s guilty plea in the Russia investigation and then the death of former president George H.W. Bush.
Trump’s determination to be on his best behavior in Buenos Aires was most visible when he met with Merkel on Saturday afternoon. He passed up the opportunity to rib her for arriving late because her government aircraft malfunctioned; German engineering and military readiness have been past targets of his. Nor did Trump gloat over Merkel’s declining political fortunes; he previously has said the veteran leader was losing her touch.
Instead, Trump said Merkel was doing “an incredible job” as Germany’s leader and was “highly respected by everybody, including me.”
Trump’s self-restraint continued as he answered a few questions from reporters. When one asked whether he had any regrets about his past criticisms of Bush and his family, Trump paused for a moment and then decided not to engage.
“Thank you very much, everybody,” said Trump, who throughout the day showered praise on the 41st president and celebrated his life of public service.
Trump gave no public address at the summit, and much of the work at such gatherings is done behind closed doors. The vast majority of his interactions with his counterparts was out of view of cameras, and it could take days or longer for news to surface detailing his private encounters — or any possible outbursts or offenses.
For instance, after Trump canceled his scheduled bilateral meeting with Putin, citing Russia’s maritime clash last week with Ukraine, the two men interacted at a private dinner for leaders and their spouses in El Teatro Colón, this city’s opulent grand opera house.
Trump, who was photographed sitting four seats away from Putin at the long dinner table, had “a number of informal conversations” at the dinner with world leaders, including Putin, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Putin said at a news conference here that he “briefly” communicated with Trump, but he did not specify the content of the conversation, according to the Interfax news agency. Putin called Trump “a man of character” and a “very experienced man.”
“It’s a misfortune that we’re not able to have a meeting,” Putin said. He added, “I hope that the meeting will finally take place when the U.S. side is ready for it.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shook hands at the start of the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30. (The Washington Post)
Trump made no public embrace of Mohammed, who was treated as a pariah here because of the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump was seen briefly conversing with the Saudi, often known by his initials, MBS, but the White House said they merely “exchanged pleasantries.”
A public triumph of Trump’s trip was the ceremonial signing Friday of a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“The president has been uncharacteristically but appropriately subdued,” said James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state and senior fellow at the Rand Corp. “Nice photo op with his NAFTA 2 partners, warm and respectful farewell to the first President Bush, cold shoulder to the two rogue attendees, Putin and MBS, and positive buildup to his meeting with Xi. So far, he has navigated a difficult and unfortunately timed gathering without mishap.”
Trump’s critics argued that he appears to be hemmed in by domestic politics.
“It may be that even this president has to make concessions to reality,” said David Axelrod, who was former president Barack Obama’s chief strategist. “The MBS and Russia stories are not playing well for him. The tariffs are punishing the very parts of the country on which he counts for support.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who only a month ago took Trump to task during the president’s visit to France by condemning nationalism, appeared to play down any disagreements here. He touted “common paths” with the American president.
“Together with Donald Trump, we have reached an agreement,” Macron said Saturday. “The USA has approved a clear text on multilateralism that complies with international rules. They’ve approved a clear text on trade that has been discussed at length and is very clear on the reforms. They’ve approved a common text on energy matters, and this morning President Trump took the floor in the plenary session to say that even though he did not follow the Paris Accords he very much wanted to be involved in climate matters.”
The G-20 is a multilateral organization, but Trump and some of his advisers are hostile to the concept of group decision-making. So Trump’s assent to the joint statement of G-20 leaders reflected a compromise.
The document reiterates a shared commitment to a “rules-based international order” and global trade, but includes a critique of the World Trade Organization, a body Trump rails against. It also expressly carves out a separate U.S. position on climate goals, noting that the United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord while the other member nations consider it irreversible and are committed to its full implementation.
“For the first time ever, the G-20 recognized the WTO is currently falling short of meeting its objectives and that it’s in need of reform,” a senior White House official crowed to reporters Saturday.
The official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, added, “Finally, we had a paragraph where we specifically preserved and explained our position for why we’re withdrawing from the job-killing Paris agreement.”
Michael Gerrard, a professor at Columbia Law School who also directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said the paragraph is “sticking out like a sore thumb, or maybe a finger in the eye.”
“The rest of the world is advancing its understanding of the consequences of climate change, and the urgency of finding ways to reduce emissions and cope with the inevitable impacts,” Gerrard added, “while the U.S. president . . . is stuck in anti-scientific denial, earning scorn and contempt.”
Such joint statements — communiques, in diplo-speak — are pro forma for international gatherings such as the G-20 and the older Group of Seven from which it grew. They can involve tense backroom negotiations but usually make little news.
Until Trump, that is.
After a stormy G-7 in Canada in June, Trump angrily removed his name from the planned joint statement. And a NATO summit in July avoided the same fate by precooking a bland statement before the meeting fully began. Trump still managed to be the skunk at the party, upending the gathering with a protest over defense spending commitments.
Trump’s Argentine hosts strained to please him throughout the summit, working to minimize topics, such as protectionism and migration, that could trigger Trump’s grievances. Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who has golfed with Trump, opted for a gentle approach.
Ahead of the summit, the Argentine hosts said that “95 percent” of the final communique had already been agreed upon, with one of the biggest sticking points being U.S. resistance to inclusion of the word “protectionism.” Ultimately, the word was not included, marking an about-face for the G-20 nations, which have repeatedly and specifically decried “protectionism” in the past.
“The U.S. does not accept to be labeled a protectionist country,” Macri said.
Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said, “The worry was that things could unravel, so there was a retraction of ambition from the other democratic leaders. They are worried about him creating a fuss over attempts to forge cooperation, which means these summits now are just gatherings of the leaders without a real agenda. That’s the function of Trump.”
Brady Dennis in Washington and Anton Troianovski in Moscow contributed to this report.