President Trump's penchant for pummeling allies while pampering adversaries was on full display this weekend.
Before the G-7 summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, with Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, Trump had threatened to start a trade war — imposing on our closest allies steep tariffs on imported metals, on specious national security grounds. He also held ugly phone and Twitter exchanges with French President Emmanuel Macron.
On Saturday, he really went off the rails, refusing to sign a joint statement with the G-7 allies and tweeting that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was "weak and dishonest." He threatened to "stop trading" with the allies if they didn't bend to his will.
Yet, when it came to America's adversaries, Trump was in full embrace mode. He demanded that Russia be reinvited to the G-7. When reminded by a reporter that Russia was kicked out because it invaded Ukraine, he blamed President Barack Obama for the invasion, then repeated his demand to "let [Russia] back in."
Nor did other autocrats go unrewarded. Trump also gave Beijing a huge gift – dropping sanctions against a Chinese telecom company that had threatened U.S. security. And he suggested he might invite North Korea's Kim Jong Un to the White House.
"We seem to want to punish our allies and befriend our enemies," said Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.). Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) summed up Trump's behavior brilliantly: "Those nations that share our values and have sacrificed alongside us for decades are being treated with contempt."
Yes, if anyone had any doubts, Trump made clear in this past week that he would rather deal with the Putins, Xi Jinpings, and Kims of the world than the leaders of other major democracies.
How else can you explain Trump's behavior toward Canada, our close neighbor and second-largest trading partner, with which we share a language, history, values, and a peaceful border? While there are trade disputes between our countries, the overall balance of trade in goods and services is in America's favor.
"The idea that we are somehow a national security threat to the United States is quite frankly insulting and unacceptable," Trudeau told NBC last week. Yet in a testy phone call with Trudeau, Trump quipped, "Didn't you guys burn down the White House?" — referring to the War of 1812. Of course, as usual, Trump had his facts wrong – it was the Brits who burned the White House.
But for Trump, infuriating allies with fake facts is just another day at the office. His push for a trade war with allies so threatens the U.S. economy that it has sparked a bipartisan effort in Congress to block him. As the Toronto Star wrote, Trump's "erratic, hostile behavior toward the United States' traditional allies is undermining Washington's credibility around the world."
The Trumped-up trade war is symptomatic of the president's cavalier attitude toward countries that share America's democratic values. It's not just that Trump has repeatedly denigrated NATO and the European Union. It's not only that he rejects efforts to curb climate change and abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, despite intense efforts by European leaders to work out a tougher joint approach toward Tehran. It's not simply that he showed, in his astounding attacks on Trudeau and Macron, that he can't stand any legitimate criticism from our closest friends.
What worries U.S. allies most is that Trump favors European populist parties of the far right — which stir fear and division — over traditional democratic parties. And he prefers autocrats like Putin to democrats like Germany's Angela Merkel and Macron.
Just last week, Trump's newly appointed ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, a former Fox News commentator, stirred up immense anger by saying it was his goal to "empower" anti-establishment conservative forces in Europe. This was taken as a direct challenge to Merkel (a conservative but not a populist). When the German government protested, the Trump administration backed Grenell.
No one benefits more from Trump's disdain for onetime Western partners than Putin. Trump's insistence that Putin should be restored to the former G-8 is an unreciprocated gift to Moscow. So is talk of a Trump summit with Putin — unless the president confronts the Russian leader about his cyber espionage in Europe and the United States.
Yet Trump has displayed little taste for pushing back against strongmen with whom he holds summits. Witness the dropped tariffs against China's ZTE telecom company. "ZTE is a much greater national security threat than steel from … Europe," tweeted Florida's GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
Yet Trump was willing to do this favor for Xi, in a case where tariffs were fully justified, when he won't listen to Macron or Trudeau.
So what motivates Trump's love for autocrats? He clearly feels more comfortable with them than he does with Western democratic leaders. Autocrats can act solo (and don't have to worry about the rule of law, a Trump dream, as we saw last week). The president thinks he can do great deals mano a mano with tough guys.