If next week’s G20 summit in Hamburg were a political beauty pageant, Donald Trump, the man who owned the Miss Universe franchise for 20 years, would prefer to stay at home.
But when you’re the President of the United States, and the most unpopular populist on the planet, that’s not an option.
So Hamburg is all set to prove an intriguing – and somewhat ugly – test of The Donald’s capacity to take criticism on the chin, as well as his reaction to the kind of mass protest that (along with Theresa May’s hero to zero demise in the White House playbook) killed off his appetite for a state visit to the UK. A decision, you suspect, that probably triggered a private sigh of relief from Buckingham Palace.
Away from the usual G2O summit attraction to street demos – given added impetus in Hamburg by Trump’s uber-controversial presence with tens of thousands expected to protest – this most egotistical and narcissist of US presidents could be cruising for a bruising on several fronts.
It looks inevitable that POTUS will clash with his redoubtable host, German leader Angela Merkel, who has made climate change, free trade and managing the global migration crisis major themes of the summit that brings together the leaders of the nations responsible for 85% of global GDP. Issues on which the thin-skinned US leader is likely to find himself somewhat isolated and under heavy verbal attack.
Behind the scenes there’s likely to be a clash between Merkel and Trump over the European Commission’s record £2.1bn fine against US tech behemoth Google, a decision which the German Chancellor champions and the US president will see as an anti-American ‘political’ move.
The summit, which kicks off on July 7, will also mark the first meeting between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin as world leaders and against the escalating backdrop of the Russian Connection probe that has engulfed the US presidency.
It coincides, too, with rising tension between Moscow and Washington over Syria, in the wake of the US shooting down one of Assad’s warplanes, Kremlin warnings that they’re prepared to destroy any US or UK military planes flying west of the Euphrates and Trump’s latest pledge to stage new strikes against Syrian airfields if the Assad regime carry out further chemical attacks against civilian targets.
The White House decision to issue a public threat was said to be based on ‘strong intelligence’ that Assad is planning a new chemical attack. Yet, curiously, neither the Pentagon nor the State Department seemed to know anything about the President’s attack plan, giving rise to suggestions that the White House’s decision to issue a public threat, rather than deliver it through diplomatic channels, had a PR dynamic attached ahead of Trump’s tricky trip to Hamburg.
But at the real heart of the Trump/Putin Syrian power game is the question of what happens when the IS capital of Raqqa falls and whether the Assad regime survives and tightens its grip on the war-ravaged nation, propped up by Russian patronage and military muscle, plus support from Iran.
Body language experts should have a field day analysing the Trump/Putin interaction, while that between POTUS and Theresa May will also come in for their attention. Weak handshakes, not hand-holding, all round?
Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate change treaty, which triggered angry exchanges when he hinted at it at the recent G7 gathering in Italy, will resurface on a much bigger scale in Hamburg, with India and China rallying behind Merkel on the issue and Putin (less enthusiastically) repeating Russia’s Paris commitment.
The prelude to Hamburg hit a discordant note when the new UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned US diplomats that if Trump ‘disengages’ on too many issues troubling the international community, America would sacrifice its world leader status.
And, while he wouldn’t acknowledge it publicly (even in a sudden late night Twitter rant) the Trump ego would undoubtedly have been bruised by research from the highly-respected Pew Research Center revealing that three-quarters of the world has little or no confidence in him. With 66% branding him ‘arrogant and dangerous’, Trump’s international poll ratings are lower than those of President Bush after the Iraq invasion fallout.
Among the Pew findings were that only 49% now have a positive view of the US, compared to 64% in 2015 and 2016, while, for the first time in Pew’s history, a majority of Canadians no longer consider the US a ‘force for good in the world’. Another neighbour, Mexico, showed only a 5% positive rating for the US president.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Israel and Russia gave Trump his best ratings, while across most of Europe his ratings crashed massively with Spain registering just 7% approval and only 6% of Germans viewing him as ‘fit’ to be US president.
The sensitive Trump ego won’t be boosted either by the Pew Research finding that his Hamburg hostess Merkel, with whom he enjoys what one White House source described to me as ‘chilly cordiality’, is the politician many more people respect as an ‘international leader’.
The German Chancellor, whose healthy poll ratings (60% approval average) will disappoint those in the Trump team who’d been hoping she was destined for defeat in the upcoming German election, will also be encouraged ahead of the G20 showdown by the poll showing only 19% globally support Trump’s decision to reject the Paris climate change accord.
On his way to Hamburg next week, Trump will only be dropping in on one other European nation for talks. Poland. Currently under fire over its increasingly repressive government and the continent’s biggest carbon emitter cowboy, Poland at least gave The Donald the ego boost of his highest European approval rating (73%)!
While White House insiders insisted to me that Trump’s partial, but significant, Muslim travel ban victory in the US Supreme Court would ‘reinforce his determination to stay tough in Hamburg despite the hostility he’ll face over it from the bleeding heart liberals’.
With the predominantly conservative Supreme Court due to deliver an overall verdict after the summer recess in October, Trump and the alt right, ex-Breitbart faction in the White House, led by strategy chief Steve Bannon, are convinced that this is one flagship policy they’ll win on.
But the euphoria over the Supreme Court was quickly diluted when Trump suffered a major blow over his Obamacare replacement health bill. A Senate vote had to be postponed because of the number of ‘rebel’ Republican Senators who wouldn’t pledge to support it – despite all 52 being summoned to the White House to hear a personal plea from the president.
The problem for Trump on this flagship policy is that the rebellion is coming from two directions, moderate Republican senators who fear it will leave up to 22 million Americans without health cover and prove a mid-term election loser, and ultra-conservatives who don’t think Trump’s plan goes far enough in destroying their hated Obamacare. While the Democrats are solidly opposed and believe it’s their best single bet for overturning the Republican grip on Congress in next year’s mid-terms.
Back on the travel ban front, the Trump administration will be empowered from next Thursday to ban travellers from six Muslim states unless they have an established relationship with the US through a job, family ties or college places.
The six states are Syria, Iran, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya. For the record, no national from any of those countries has ever committed a terrorist act on US soil. Unlike Saudi Arabia (13 of the Twin Tower terrorists), Egypt and the UAE, all of whom escape the list.
But there again, the selected six don’t have a history of feting and lauding Trump, signing mammoth arms deals with the US or lucrative past links to the Trump business empire. It’s an inconsistency that White House officials aren’t exactly eager to address when asked, but one human rights advocacy groups and lawyers will seize on when the issue returns to the Supreme Court.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor who, as Mirror Group US Bureau Chief, met and interviewed Donald Trump several times in the past.