If you need an example of how President Trump's brand of leadership continues to harm America's standing on the world stage, look no further than Wednesday's joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö. Niinistö opened his remarks by speaking of his visits to the American History Museum, the African American History Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian. He paid tribute to America's democratic values, saying, "Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on."
Trump, in contrast, was decidedly less dignified. He baselessly accused a critic of treason and then raged at a Reuters reporter who had the temerity to ask follow-up questions about the Ukraine scandal. He went on a tirade against America's "fake" and "corrupt" news media, before quoting Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity singing his praises. "I'm very, very happy living the way I'm living," he insisted. Niinistö chuckled in evident embarrassment at the whole spectacle unfolding around him.
This press conference was a clown show. Of course, that's what Americans have come to expect from Trump, who can't seem to extract his thoughts and attentions from cable news, talk radio, and whichever shiny object has been most recently placed in his sight line, but it is extra painful to watch his antics play out in the context of America's international relationships. It's one thing to listen to your eccentric uncle quote Limbaugh and InfoWars all day. It is another level of horrifying when the neighbors come over for a visit and witness the erratic behavior firsthand.
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Of course, Trump has never seemed to care about his country's international relationships. He has insulted allies, started trade wars, and threatened traditional alliances all while showing himself in thrall to the planet's worst dictators. Even without the hint of scandal, Trump's presidency was always going to leave America's reputation tarnished in the eyes of the world.
But scandal is in the mix now.
It is bad enough that Trump asked Ukraine's president for help digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. From a domestic standpoint, the story is offensive and wrong — the president misusing his authority to undermine a political rival and thus tilt next year's election his way. In terms of America's international relationships, though, the affair must look utterly ridiculous. After all, Trump wasn't just going after Biden; he was seeking information that would help him prove discredited theories of Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 election.
What this means is the leaders of Ukraine and other countries — like the U.K., Italy, and Australia, where Trump's aides have also sought information — know Trump is directing his country's vast governmental resources to hunt down a chimera. They know, perhaps better than many Americans, that the president of the United States is frivolous and unserious. They know he's a joke.
And now they know that merely appearing at a press conference with this president comes with the risk of being drawn into the international relations equivalent of a cringeworthy Larry David sitcom.
"We don't really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept," former U.K. Ambassador Kim Darroch wrote to his bosses about Trump's behavior, according to emails leaked earlier this year. Darroch lost his job when his memos became public, but his assessment was spot-on — and we can only assume that as America's impeachment inquiry progresses, other ambassadors will increasingly relay their own contempt and concern back to the world's capitals.
The power and prestige of the United States is too vast a resource for Trump to expend all at once, but it isn't inexhaustible, either. America remains powerful — and so other leaders will have to take our country, and its leader, somewhat seriously for a while yet. But if other world leaders think they can steer our foreign policy by playing to and manipulating the president's ego, whims, and esoteric notions, Trump and his successors are going to find it increasingly difficult to advance American interests going forward.
Trump likes to warn that "the world is laughing at us." It turns out, he's right.
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