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Trump and Macron duel over NATO’s future

Protesters gathered outside of a Buckingham Palace banquet for NATO leaders Tuesday in London.
Protesters gathered outside of a Buckingham Palace banquet for NATO leaders Tuesday in London.Peter Summers/Getty Images/Getty Images

LONDON — President Trump sat down in a gilded chair beside President Emmanuel Macron of France on Tuesday, prepared for what has become a ritual of sorts on his home turf at the White House: He holds forth as another leader is left to smile stoically through his jokes, jabs, and insults.

But Macron changed the script. By the time their 45-minute appearance at the US ambassador’s residence in London was over, the French leader had managed a rare role reversal, putting Trump on the defensive about his vision for NATO and his handling of a military conflict involving Turkey, and swatting away the president’s joke about sending Islamic State fighters from Syria to France.

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“Would you like some nice ISIS fighters?” Trump said, using an alternate name for the Islamic State, crouching forward and claiming that “many” fighters had come from France. “I can give them to you.”

“Let’s be serious,” Macron, who sat coiled on the edge of his seat with one hand clamped firmly on his knee, replied. “The very large numbers of fighters on the ground are the fighters coming from Syria, from Iraq.”

The dramatic moment, which came as both leaders were in London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NATO alliance, underscored how a relationship formerly known for lingering hugs, lint-brushing, and white-knuckle handshakes has devolved over divisions on matters ranging from terrorism to trade policy.

This time, the deterioration took place on live television.

“The president doesn’t like confrontation in person and doesn’t quite know how to react to being on the receiving end,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Macron understands that. He’s decided the best defense is offense.”

Throughout the day, Trump made news on a number of fronts in his scattershot way, speaking to reporters for over two hours in total. He castigated Democrats as “unpatriotic” for supporting a possible impeachment, commented on Prince Andrew’s relationship with disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein — “tough story,” Trump said of the prince, whom he claimed not to know — and mused that he might punt on a trade deal with China until after the 2020 election.

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But it was Macron who was his focus for much of the day.

In November, Macron — another leader who enjoys talking — made headlines for lamenting, in an interview with The Economist magazine, what he said was the loss of American leadership, leading to “the brain death of NATO.” He said the United States under Trump appeared to be “turning its back on us,” notably by pulling troops out of northeastern Syria without notice, and called on Europeans to do more in their own defense, with the aim of “strategic autonomy.”

In a 52-minute meeting Tuesday morning with Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, Trump called Macron’s comments last month “very insulting” and a “very, very nasty statement essentially to 28 countries.”

But when asked during the afternoon meeting to address his earlier comments about Macron, Trump, a leader averse to face-to-face confrontation, initially demurred. When it was his turn to speak, Macron was direct.

“My statement created some reactions,” Macron said. “I do stand by it.”

As they continued a terse back-and-forth, Macron targeted Trump’s relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Erdogan has already upset NATO allies by purchasing a sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missile system, the S-400. He is now threatening to oppose NATO’s plans to fortify the defense of Poland and the Baltic countries if the alliance does not join him in labeling some Kurdish groups as terrorists.

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Trump has maintained a soft touch with Erdogan, including giving the green light for the Turkish leader to advance troops into Northern Syria in an offensive against Kurdish-led forces that had been allied with the United States. On Tuesday, Trump would not say whether he would impose sanctions on Turkey for buying the missile system.

Macron was harsher, saying that the purchase would need to be explained and that there would need to be common ground on classifying different groups of fighters as terrorists.

“When I look at Turkey, they are fighting against those who fight with us,” he said. “Who is the enemy today?”

During several appearances before reporters, Trump found several chances to effectively highlight a foreign policy achievement he hopes will help his reelection campaign: getting allies to pay more toward the costs of running NATO.

“What I’m liking about NATO is that a lot of countries have stepped up, really, I think, at my behest,” Trump said.

But Macron made it clear that while he wanted more military spending by European countries, NATO had other challenges to address besides “just numbers.”

“I’m sorry to say that we don’t have the same definition of terrorism around the table,” Macron said. Throughout the icy exchange, clear disagreements between the two leaders over how to deal with Erdogan’s approach in Syria even overshadowed the issue of France imposing taxes on American tech giants and a potential retaliatory tariff on French wines.

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In the past, Trump has been so disruptive at NATO meetings that he triggered an emergency session. He has accused other member countries of shortchanging the United States on military spending, and he has called the alliance “obsolete,” questioning whether it still served a purpose.

A goal of the current meeting was to avoid any formal disruptions. But Ian Lesser, a former American official who directs the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, said that the subtext of Macron’s criticism of NATO was growing doubt about Washington’s commitment.

“When he says ‘brain death,’ Macron’s talking about American leadership,” Lesser said. “That’s perhaps what Trump is hearing. Trump’s view is that he’s turned NATO around, and the rhetoric from Paris is compromising that narrative.”