Last Friday, as President Trump left Washington for his first trip abroad, an editorial in Der Spiegel, one of the largest and most influential magazines in Europe, made it clear just how monumental a task the new president had ahead of him in convincing European leaders to trust their new ally.
The magazine didn’t just call for Trump to moderate some of his more controversial policies. Instead, the editorial demanded, “Trump has to be removed from the White House. Quickly. He is a danger to the world.”
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The author’s complaints about the new US president went on at length, but for the purposes of this article, they can be boiled down to this:
“He does not possess the requisite intellect and does not understand the significance of the office he holds nor the tasks associated with it. He doesn't read. He doesn't bother to peruse important files and intelligence reports and knows little about the issues that he has identified as his priorities.”
The trip was a chance to prove his critics wrong -- to demonstrate to the world the gravitas expected of the most powerful person on the planet; to show foreign allies the respect that countries that have fought and bled beside the US deserve; and to show doubters, like the editorialists at Der Spiegel, that he could grow into the job.
But instead of gravitas, the world was treated to goofiness. Instead of respect, foreign leaders were met with rudeness; and rather than growth, Trump demonstrated something like arrested development.
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Trump’s first stop was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where he and his family were greeted like visiting royalty themselves. The stop provided two of the strangest moments of the week-long trip.
Sword Dance -- After agreeing to the largest arms deal in history, Trump’s team somehow allowed him to be filmed celebrating with a traditional “sword dance.” Not there is anything wrong with participating in a host’s customs, but the visual of the 70-year-old Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson awkwardly clutching scimitars and bouncing along to the music probably wasn’t the visual the White House was hoping for.
Glowing Orb -- Still more bizarre was the posed picture that made the rounds the following day showing Trump, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia laying hands on a glowing orb, surrounded by rank upon rank of reverent onlookers. Commenters variously compared them to a trio of second-rate James Bond villains, participants in some weird religious ceremony, or extras from The Lord of the Rings.
Trump was there to celebrate the opening of a global anti-terrorism center. The irony was that during his entire time in Saudi Arabia, Trump made no mention of the fact that international terror organizations receive copious funding from within that country, or that the Kingdom has one of the world’s worst records when it comes to human rights.
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Trump’s stop in Israel wasn’t without some odd moments, either.
Where Are We Again? -- Sitting down to a public meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the president announced to the crowd that he and his entourage had “just got back from the Middle East.” At those words, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer -- who likely knows that Israel is in the Middle East -- seemed to react involuntarily:
Oh man, watch Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer (on right couch) react when Trump says—in Israel—"We just got back from the Middle East." pic.twitter.com/x7nb4uvqpR— (((Yair Rosenberg))) (@Yair_Rosenberg) May 22, 2017
Yad Vashem -- After visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust, Trump left a note in the visitor’s book that struck many as more appropriate for a teenage girl visiting the White House. “It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends -- so amazing + will never forget!”
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Much of the coverage of Trump’s trip to Rome focused on the fevered debate over whether quick video clips showed First Lady Melania Trump refusing to hold her husband’s hand. But most of the awkwardness on that leg of the trip was generated by people other than Trump.
Pope Shade -- After greeting Trump, Pope Francis turned to the First Lady, and through an interpreter appeared to comment on Trump’s weight. He asked, through an interpreter, what she was feeding her husband, suggesting to the Slovenian-born first lady that perhaps it was a traditional chocolate-covered strudel common to her native country.
Sorry Spicey -- Trump’s White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a practicing Catholic, was reportedly not allowed to attend the private audience with the Pope that Trump and his family enjoyed, something widely viewed as a snub.
In Belgium to meet with members of NATO, Trump failed to endear himself to the other heads of state in attendance.
Macron -- Meeting newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron for the first time, Trump engaged in not one but two extremely uncomfortable looking handshakes with the young leader. At one point, the two men, sitting across from one another, grabbed each other’s hands in a knuckle-whitening death grip that seemed as though it would never end. At another point, meeting while standing up, Trump did his patented pull-and-grab handshake, during which he jerked the French president toward him with one hand while grabbing him by the shoulder with his other hand.
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Excuse Me, America First -- In another widely shared video, Trump appeared to shove the prime minister of Montenegro, Duško Marković, out of his way as he moved to the front row for a planned group photo.
You Deadbeats Are on Your Own -- Trump capped off his time with the United States’ NATO allies by accusing virtually all of them of failing to pull their weight, and of owing “massive” sums of money to the alliance. He also failed to affirm US support for Article 5, the mutual defense element of NATO’s founding treaty. The leaders assembled to listen to him stood stone-faced as he spoke. Later, they had representatives explain that they do not, in fact, “owe” NATO anything.