Over the course of just 11 days, President Donald Trump went from calling the European Union a “foe” and publicly questioning his own intelligence agencies to palling around with a top EU official in the Rose Garden and scheduling a meeting with his senior advisers to discuss election security.
It was an abrupt tonal shift for the president — and it underscored the growing pressure on Trump from fellow Republicans to toughen his public stance against Russia and to limit the fallout of the escalating global trade wars.
Few people close to the president believe he has changed much, and they expect the president to continue bashing long-time U.S. allies and cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin whenever he gets the chance. Still, the announcements on trade and Russia appeared to serve as high-profile messaging after a week of chaos that Trump is on the same page as his political party — and that the White House is sensitive to the mounting criticism.
Trump’s appearance with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the Rose Garden was a stark departure from this month’s NATO meeting in Brussels, at which the president repeatedly lambasted European leaders.
And it was another example of Trump’s deep unpredictability on the global stage. European leaders have long complained privately that they never know which Trump they’re going to get — the NATO-hating, EU-bashing, tariff-loving bully or the accommodating deal-maker.
“We want to further strengthen this great relationship to the benefit of all American and European citizens,” Trump said Wednesday, as Republican lawmakers, some of whom have been critical of Trump on trade, looked on. The lawmakers cheered when Trump announced the details of the agreement with the European Union.
Trump said the United States will pause its plans to impose new tariffs against the European Union and work to resolve existing differences over trade in an attempt to avoid a full-blown trade war.
The announcement appeared to have been slapped together at the last minute. Normally, Rose Garden announcements are elaborate affairs with dozens of attendees sitting in rows of chairs to hear the president speak.
On Wednesday, by contrast, reporters were rushed into the Rose Garden for the unscheduled remarks with little notice. The Rose Garden was empty, with the exception of the few dozen journalists who observed Trump and Juncker. White House staffers and lawmakers whose 4 p.m. meeting with the president had been delayed by the statement looked on from the White House colonnade.
Planned or not, the statement had the short-term effect of easing tensions between the United States and Europe, and the news of an agreement on trade sent stock prices soaring. The announcement seemed to take at least some of the edge off a mounting trade war between the United States and the EU, which started after Trump smacked the 28-country bloc with tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The EU responded with retaliatory tariffs of their own.
The announcement also marked a much-needed win for Juncker, who faced renewed questions about alcohol use after a video surfaced showing him unable to walk without assistance at the recent NATO leaders’ event.
Neither EU officials nor the White House offered many details about the agreement they reached on trade. In large part, it appeared to be a symbolic deal meant to give both sides relief from tariffs while they continued to negotiate.
The tentative accord — essentially to forestall an escalation of a trade war rather than end the existing tit-for-tat tariffs — is a major win for the EU, and especially Germany, the bloc’s biggest and richest member. Trump has shown special venom for Germany, and Berlin had been bracing for Trump to impose new levies aimed at hammering its prized auto industry. Some German officials had been urging the EU not to further provoke the combustible president.
Many of the provisions of the truce fit with EU priorities and require little action by Brussels or capitals across the Continent. Imports of U.S. soybeans were already expected to rise sharply in response to Trump’s larger, more brutal trade war with China. And the EU has long hoped to eliminate nearly all tariffs on manufactured goods and had been working to do so in negotiations with the Obama administration for an earlier trade accord, before talks broke down.
In short, sparing the tariffs on EU cars offers Germany a reprieve from Trump’s wrath and gives the Europeans major breathing room for trade negotiations.
Still, the announcement appeared to delight Republican lawmakers, especially those from agriculture states that faced the biggest consequences from the tariffs.
“My God, if we can get more soybeans to the EU, that’s a big deal,” Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who has repeatedly raised concerns over the tariffs’ effects, told POLITICO. “It’s a great day.”
Earlier Wednesday, the Trump administration also appeared to be trying to take a tougher stance on Russia. POLITICO first reported that Trump is planning to chair a full National Security Council meeting later this week to discuss election security. The meeting is expected to include a detailed discussion about Russia’s efforts to target the midterm elections.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Russia to end its annexation of Crimea in a declaration released on Wednesday. While the statement reaffirmed a long-held U.S. position, the timing was notable, given Trump’s recent defenses of Putin.
The White House also announced that a planned second meeting between Putin and Trump would be delayed until 2019. The decision to put off the summit will limit — at least for now — the political blowback that would result from another huddle between the world leaders. But the move is likely not part of some grand strategy to distance Trump from Putin; the Kremlin was reportedly reluctant to accept the invitation.
Trump’s advisers are divided over the long-term political implications of the president’s Russia comments. On one hand, many acknowledged that last week was a low-point of Trump’s time in the White House, with the president’s contradictory comments about Russian meddling sinking morale.
But others close to the president argue that there are political opportunities in the Russia firestorm. Some Trump advisers believe the president’s frequent criticisms of Robert Mueller’s investigation and the federal government’s surveillance of Carter Page, for example, are winning issues with his base.
David Herszenhorn and Burgess Everett contributed to this story.