The president managed a G-7 summit his way — unwilling to commit to clear stances and declining to be boxed in by anyone.
BIARRITZ, France — The divisions were laid bare on the first day, when President Donald Trump insisted to U.S. allies at an opening dinner for the G-7 summit that Russia belongs back in the elite group of leading nations and then bluntly informed his French counterpart they do not see eye-to-eye on Iran.
But by the end of Day Three, Trump was having a kumbaya moment in public. “There’s been no fights or arguments. No anything. There’s been great unity here. The papers haven’t reported how great it’s been,” he told reporters at his midday meeting Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
That was the pattern Trump followed for most of his three-day visit to southwestern France, where only the coastal winds rivaled the breakneck pace of vague and vacillating statements on pressing issues including North Korea, Iran, the environment and trade. The president at times sought to placate allies with assurances that he would work with them to broker trade deals or find areas of compromise despite firmly established differences.
It was typical Trump on display on the world stage, refusing to be boxed in by anyone on anything. The president’s meandering statements and conflicting remarks left aides and allies alike guessing at his intended course of action — and his critics reviving questions about his fitness for office.
“Sorry, it’s the way I negotiate,” Trump shot back at a reporter during Monday’s press conference when questioned about whether there’s an actual strategy behind his constant back-and-forth on his positions regarding trade with China.
“It has done very well for me over the years,” Trump said. “It’s doing even better for the country.”
The G-7 followed a week in which the president flip-flopped positions — often within a day — on China tariffs, gun restrictions, purchasing Greenland, tax cuts to fight a potential recession and more. The uncertainty flowing from the president triggered tremors in markets and questions from politicians and business executives about where the president seemed to be taking the world’s largest economy.
Earlier in the day, Trump had showered Chinese President Xi Jinping with praise, calling him “a great leader” and declaring that he and Beijing were ready — and eager — to return to the negotiating table. But less than 24 hours prior, Trump aides were forced to do damage control after he publicly suggested he may be having second thoughts on his tariff war China.
He only meant that he regretted “not raising the tariffs higher,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham later said.
From China and Iran to climate change and North Korea’s weapons testing, Trump spent the summit dancing between positions that endeared himself to his fellow leaders and positions that faithfully represented his “America First” approach — leaving observers to wonder whether he was keeping his options open, or simply making decisions on the fly without advance planning.
Never was the dithering more evident than during Trump’s interactions with French President Emmanuel Macron. The host of this year’s summit has positioned himself as a champion of multilateralism, offering a sharp contrast to Trump’s economic nationalism and scorn for global coordination.
In a move that angered some White House officials, Macron swept Trump off to lunch within an hour of his arrival in Biarritz, telling reporters before the pair was left to dine alone that their agenda for the weekend included topics like climate change, gender equality and the raging Amazon wildfires.
Administration officials, who complained that the president was cornered by his French counterpart, were caught off guard when Trump tweeted afterward that his lunch with Macron was “the best meeting we have had yet.”
“Progress being made!” he wrote.
But two days later, Trump skipped a working session on climate change — an issue some of his advisers had described as too “niche” for the G-7, a group whose original mission was to address pressing economic concerns. And when the president was asked hours later to share his views on climate change, his response couldn’t have put more daylight between him and Macron.
“I feel that the United States has tremendous wealth, the wealth is under its feet … I’m not going to lose that wealth on dreams, on windmills, which, frankly, aren’t working too well,” Trump said.
In a similar fashion, Trump told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe he understood his concerns about North Korea’s latest short-term missile launches. “I’m not happy about it,” Trump said, sitting next to Abe in a bilateral meeting on Sunday.
The next day, however, when he and Macron fielded questions from French and American reporters, Trump returned to his flattery of the North Korean leader, who he’s met twice. ”Kim Jong Un, who I’ve gotten to know extremely well … he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump said.
He continued, “I think that North Korea has tremendous economic potential and I think that Kim Jong Un sees that he would be the leader and I think he sees the tremendous potential that it’s got.”
Even with the looming threat of a potential reversal, sometimes Trump’s charm offensive worked.
“On the digital tax, we have reached a deal to get beyond the difficulties we had between us,” Macron said Monday, referring to a revenue-based tax on tech giants that had infuriated administration officials.
And later Monday evening, French officials released a joint declaration on trade, Iran, Ukraine, Libya and Hong Kong — a document that seemed out of the question at the beginning of the summit, when French and U.S. officials offered conflicting accounts of why Macron had scrapped the joint communiqué that usually accompanies these gatherings.
“The G-7 organized in Biarritz by France was able to successfully reach agreements on several points,” read a translated version of the declaration.
Trump will face another test on the foreign stage within the next week, when he travels to Warsaw, Poland, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II.
Some of the G-7 leaders who were in Biarritz — heads of state whom the president irritated and complimented, often simultaneously — are also expected at the events, increasing the risk that Trump could perhaps undo some of the “progress” he so frequently touted while in France.