It is safe to assume that the Oval Office had never before witnessed the practice of dandruff diplomacy. Donald Trump, standing beside Emmanuel Macron, told reporters: “Mr President, they’re all saying what a great relationship we have, and they’re actually correct,” he said. “It’s not fake news.” The French leader grinned. Then, with unexpected intimacy, Trump reached for Macron’s shoulder. “In fact, I’ll get that little piece of dandruff off; you have a little piece. We have to make him perfect. He is perfect.”
That night, TV host Stephen Colbert observed: “Mr President, Macron is still standing next to you, smiling, after hanging out with you for two days. That’s not dandruff – that’s cocaine.” But while many Americans rolled their eyes at 71-year-old Trump’s silverback impression, no less striking was the impeccable response of Macron, 40, graciously laughing along with the joke and giving no hint of being thrown off his game.
Indeed, during the first state visit of the Trump presidency, the Frenchman offered a masterclass in how to play this most skittish of commanders-in-chief. Tactile and tactful, he established himself firmly in the front rank of Trump’s favourite leaders alongside Japan’s Shinzō Abe, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, China’s Xi Jinping and, most cryptically, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Notably all are men and, in style or substance, strongmen. That bodes ill for Theresa May, who will host Trump in July, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. The women lead fragile coalition governments, likely to be a sign of weakness in this US president’s eyes, and have proved unable, or unwilling, to flatter his ego.
The contrast in body language was brutal on Friday when Merkel paid a lower-key visit and held a joint press conference. Behind the same lecterns in the East Room, Trump and Macron shared a man hug with the US president declaring, “I like him a lot.” Trump and Merkel engaged only in stiff handshakes. As they departed, Trump put his hand towards her back but did not touch.
During the question and answer session, Trump rambled about how “Washington can be a very mean place; you don’t know about that, chancellor”, and joked about how quickly people in Germany can get fired. Merkel’s chilly reaction – eyebrows raised, a frown, a grimace, a forced half-smile – raised the question of how she would have reacted to the dandruff move.
How to handle Trump’s improvisational, barely briefed approach to global affairs has been a puzzle for world leaders. “I think he wants to be liked,” said one western diplomat, who attended a meeting between Trump and his own country’s leader. “You’ve got to strike up a rapport, find some kind of common ground, find something that gets him in a positive frame of mind.”
The diplomat, who did not wish to be named, observed how Trump sees foreign policy through the prism of relationships. “I would say personal rapport is probably more important with him than it would be with a more conventional president. The idea that getting on with someone is what’s crucial to the outcome of the discussions wouldn’t normally be the way people see it. But he’s inclined to see it as a question of personal chemistry. Even this Putin stuff, a lot of it is, ‘I think I get on with him, I think I could deal with him.’
“It’s a belief in his personal responsibility to shape things in his favour. As a businessman, as a dealmaker, as someone who’s been involved in real estate deals all his life, I think those kind of personal relationships he builds up are important to him, so I wouldn’t undervalue it all. But whether it produces the goods in the case of Macron, let’s wait and see.”
The ‘Trump whisperers’
There has been keen competition for the role of “Trump whisperer”. A White House source said Macron and Abe, the prime minister of Japan, have spoken to the president by phone more often than any other leader. Abe was the first suitor at Trump Tower after the 2016 election, giving the president-elect a $3,800 golden golf club. He followed up at Trump’s luxury Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida soon after. When the American president reciprocated with a visit to Japan, he was treated to a state dinner, a white hat embroidered with “Donald & Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater” in gold thread and a round of golf.
Abe visited Mar-a-Lago again earlier this month and played another round. But is all this effort – undignified sycophancy in the eyes of critics – worth it? For Abe there is already talk of buyer’s remorse. Trump carried out this threat to quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership and blindsided Tokyo by agreeing to meet the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to discuss denuclearisation.
Jon Alterman, a senior vice-president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said: “Where does it get you? There’s certainly an argument to be made in Japan that Abe has bent over backwards to court Trump yet on several crucial issues, like North Korea, Japan is outside the room looking in instead of inside the room looking out.”
Others who cosy up to Trump could meet a similar fate. Dan Kurtz-Phelan, executive editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, said: “The Abe case is instructive. He was very good at the theatrics but once Trump’s priorities cut against Japan’s interests, it didn’t count for much. You can imagine it all falling apart quickly for Macron too. They both went out of their way to service Trump’s desires in a certain way and it served them until it didn’t.”
However, some believe that, but for Abe’s charm offensive, things would be even worse for Japan. The Axios website reported: “Trump finds Japan’s trade practices and regulations to be very irksome. But he has a great personal chemistry with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and would likely be going far harder on the country if their relationship were tense.”
As for Macron, there will be a tangible measure of success or failure next month when Trump decides whether to heed his pleas to rescue the Iran nuclear deal. The French president could hardly have done more to woo him, starting with last summer’s Bastille Day parade in Paris that so wowed the US president that he wants a military parade of his own.
This week he visited Mount Vernon – where the key to the Bastille, a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, is displayed – and hit grace notes at a state dinner of spring lamb served with jambalaya, a traditional Louisiana dish with French influences, followed by nectarine tart with honey and creme fraiche ice cream. Cheeseburgers and Trump wines were off the menu.
Macron and Trump’s serial kissing, arm-patting, hand-patting and back-slappingoffered threw the US president’s fumbling efforts to clasp his own wife’s hand into sharp relief. But while the French leader embraced Trump, he proceeded to skewer Trumpism in a speech to a joint meeting of Congress that gave a rousing defence of the liberal world order and predicted that America will one day return to the Paris climate agreement. At several moments Democrats stood to applaud and cheer while members of Trump’s cabinet remained riveted to their seats.
It was a scene that illustrated the dilemma facing democratic leaders trying to curry favour with the most powerful person in the world while avoiding humilation before their own voters. There are no such concerns for Bin Salman, who rolled out the red carpet in Saudi Arabia and projected a five-storey image of Trump’s face on to the Ritz-Carlton hotel, or Xi, who duly provided what Chinese officials called a “state visit-plus”, a description Trump repeated with relish. And at a press conference with Macron this week, he slipped in a familiar line: “I have a very excellent, as you know, relationship with President Xi.”
If Trump does shred the Iran deal, it will be another win for Netanyahu, who has regularly showered him with praise. Last September, after Trump addressed the United Nations, the Israeli prime minister tweeted: “In over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.” The US president has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and said little about the building of additional settlements or making concessions to the Palestinians.
Perry Cammack, a fellow in the Middle East programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinktank, said: “I have to assume the Israelis are beside themselves with delight that pressure on settlements and the two-state approach are out of the window. For Trump, his evangelical base is very happy with that outcome.”
Other relationships have not gone so well. May was the first foreign leader to visit Trump as president but things have cooled since then. When the US president retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda from the far-right group Britain First, May made her displeasure known. Trump’s one-day “working visit” to the UK on 13 July falls short of the state visit once promised.
The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, got off on the wrong foot by discussing in a phone call, subsequently leaked, an agreement in which the US would vet and take refugees who had been imprisoned after trying to enter Australia by boat. Trump complained that the deal was “stupid” and would “kill” him politically. Relations with the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, also appear to have cooled over trade.
Alterman, a former member of policy planning staff at the state department, said: “Trudeau seemed to be off to a strong start. The problem is the president likes to be the superstar in the room and Trudeau has a lot of star quality.”
The pair may also be on different wavelengths. Alterman added: “The president perceives himself to be a skilled conversationalist and gracious host so there’s more to it than flattery. It’s also keeping up your end of the conversation and noticing things he notices. The president believes in personal chemistry.”
He also apparently believes in the great man theory of history, with himself in the lead role. Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at George Washington University, commented: “There are a lot of populists – in Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines – and you would think Trump would forge alliances with them but not really. If anything is a special relationship, it’s Putin, and Xi may be playing him pretty well too with bombastic flattery and military stuff. They make Trump feel historic.