President Donald Trump returned late Saturday from his first overseas trip as president, clearly more welcomed by the Muslims he’d proposed barring from the United States than by allies in Europe whose priorities and values have long been parallel with U.S. ideals.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi praised Trump as someone “capable of doing the impossible” during the president’s first stop in Saudi Arabia, where he addressed more than 50 leaders of Muslim nations. He danced with Saudi royalty, then later struck a multi-billion dollar arms deal with them.
In Europe, however, he sparred with European leaders about climate change and engaged in a not-so-warm handshake competition with French President Emmanuel Macron.
For his part, Trump lectured the European leaders about defense spending and refused to go along with their statement supporting the Paris agreement on climate change. He said he’d announce later whether the U.S. would remain part of the voluntary accord.
The difference in the two receptions was striking.
“He was received very differently in Europe because he also acted very differently,” said Joerg Wolf, the editor in chief at the Atlantic Initiative research center in Berlin. “He treated the dictators in Saudi Arabia with much more respect and said nicer things about them than he treated his European allies who are all democratically elected.”
Trump ran for office promising to put America first, saying he was “not president of the world.” He called NATO obsolete and predicted the demise of the European Union.
But many Europeans thought in recent months that he had dropped the most critical rhetoric and was talking more positively about the European Union and NATO, the security alliance that rose up during the Cold War.
So they were surprised when Trump used the unveiling of NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels on Thursday to scold leaders for forcing U.S. taxpayers to shoulder the organization’s defense burden.
“I don’t think it’s right for you to say that other counties should spend more on the military when your own people can’t afford an education,” said Jelle Dhaene, 27, referring to the rising tuition of U.S. universities.
“…or healthcare,” added his fiancée, Elin Pauwels, 30, a doctor from Ghent, Belgium.
The two were visiting the Greek and Roman temples spread across Sicily, not far from where Trump met with the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan for a two-day G-7 summit on global trade, climate change and security.
But they were among many Europeans who voiced dismay at Trump’s European visit – and not just because thousands of Italian troops had blocked access to historic Taormina, where the summit was held.
Europeans are almost as intrigued by the Trump phenomenon as Americans – his first visit was a hot topic on social media throughout Europe.
Commentators obsessed over the looks on European leaders’ faces as Trump lectured them for not contributing enough on defense. They wondered about the message behind French President Emmanuel Macron’s handshake skirmishes with Trump, first holding on to Trump’s hand too long at the NATO summit in Brussels, then seeming to fake Trump out when they met again in Italy.
They were stunned by reports in German newspapers of Trump saying Germany was “bad, very bad” on trade.
I don’t really know what he’s thinking or what he favors.
Elin Pauwels of Ghent, Belgium
“Does he really know where he is?” said Christian Strathmann, 70, a retired teacher from Germany.
Europeans aren’t watching just Trump, but are paying attention to politics and foreign policy in ways they haven’t before, said Richard G. Whitman, a European politics expert at the University of Kent. He described the Trump presidency as “car crash TV” that is difficult to turn away from.
The Trump family hasn’t escaped notice.
Giovanni Tropea, 27, an Italian who works at a retail store, admitted the first family is a frequent topic of conversation among him and his friends. They debate whether Melania even wants to be the first lady and how she appears to prefer to remain behind the scenes, unlike Michelle Obama, who Tropea described as “the second president.”
“Ivanka maybe is the first lady of this administration,” Tropea said, referring to Trump’s daughter. “The family is important because it is the foundation for this president.”
Tropea said he has mixed feelings about Trump himself, but hoped he’d stick with the Paris climate accord.
Some of the commentary was harsh.
Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper ripped Trump following the visit as “unfit.” In an op-ed by its editor, Klaus Brinkbaumer, the paper said the international community can’t wait till it “finds a way to circumvent the White House and free itself of its dependence on the U.S.”
“Donald Trump has transformed the United States into a laughing stock and he is a danger to the world,” Brinkbaumer wrote.
After the G-7 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed uncertainty about the United States, telling a campaign event in Bavaria on Sunday that “the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.”
And Macron’s handshake fake was a “moment of truth,” Macron said.
“That’s how you ensure you are respected,” Macron told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in an interview on Sunday. “You have to show you won’t make small concessions – not even symbolic ones.”
We're behind NATO all the way, but we want to be treated fairly.
President Donald Trump
Not all Europeans said they disliked Trump.
As England’s departure from the European Union reflects, the region is experiencing its own surge of growing populism that has taken hold across the region as it struggles with immigration issues and anti-establishment fever.
Indeed, David Jones, 72, doesn’t agree with the anti-Trump sentiment. Jones who works in chemical manufacturing in England, said he appreciates Trump’s directness. He liked that Trump immediately addressed British Prime Minister Theresa May’s concerns about leaks by U.S. intelligence officials of details of the Manchester bombing.
“He’s quite forthright,” Jones said. “He makes decisions.”
Marco Disefano, 25, a friend of Tropea’s who works at a local pizza parlor, also liked Trump’s focus on improving the global economy. Disefano has concerns about competing with immigrants for work, though he feels Trump has gone too far with his proposal to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned Europeans not to jump to conclusions and to focus on the actions of administration, not just Trump’s words. He pointed out that the president’s proposed budget would increase U.S. military spending in Europe by 40 percent.
“This is a commitment to our collective defense from the United States, not only in words but also deeds,” he said.
But Dhaene, a physicist, really wishes Trump would stop dismissing facts, particularly scientific facts about climate change. Pauwels thinks the climate deal is where the United States can create the most damage if America pulls out because of the sway the United States has with other countries that may also want to leave the pact.
“If we Belgians said ‘Belgium First’ it wouldn’t really harm the rest of the world,” Pauwels said. “We’re a small country. But a country as large as America has a lot of influence.”