Trump's sit-downs with foreign officials are 'annoying' some in Biden's camp


WASHINGTON — As Donald Trump rolled out the red carpet for a parade of foreign dignitaries in recent weeks, some aides to President Joe Biden took notice — and umbrage — at what they saw as the former president playing pretender-in-chief.

In less than two months, Trump has hosted Polish President Andrzej Duda, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, former Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and David Cameron, the former British prime minister who now serves as the U.K.’s foreign secretary. He’s also talked with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and others by phone.

It’s not unusual for a party nominee to meet with foreign officials — but that’s typically done overseas and with leaders below the level of president or prime minister. Trump has made a show of bringing these dignitaries to his homes — Mar-a-Lago for some, Trump Tower for others — and treating them to some of the trappings of a state visit. That, in particular, has stuck in the craw of some Biden aides, according to three people familiar with the frustrations.

A picture of a delicate power dance emerged in interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with aspects of U.S. foreign policy and the Biden and Trump campaigns. Biden and Trump are tussling over which of them has more clout at home and overseas, while foreign leaders seek to influence American policy, bolster their own standing at home and hedge their bets by cozying up to both candidates.

While the pomp and circumstance of visits to Trump’s homes aren’t official, the political and policy implications of the meetings are real, and that has presented a conundrum for Biden’s team.

“On the official side, it might be helpful,” one longtime Biden ally said of Trump hearing from the likes of Duda and Cameron, who advocated for the Ukraine aid bill that Biden signed last month. “On the political side, it’s annoying to see it happen because [Trump] tries to capitalize.”

For some of the same reasons, Trump’s allies love the optics of his series of sit-downs. As he defends himself against criminal charges in federal and state courts, these foreign officials — most of them far-right politicians — are providing validation for Trump. The meetings may also suggest to voters that the world sees a Trump comeback as a real possibility.

“At some level,” one Trump aide said, “they believe [Trump] can win — will win.”

Brian Hughes, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said world leaders have the ability to contrast Biden with Trump.

“Foreign leaders and others are paying attention to this election for a number of reasons,” he said. “One is primarily that our president on the world stage has been diminished,” he said of the comparison from Trump’s years in office to Biden’s.

Democrats tend to roll their eyes at such talk. Biden’s approval rating abroad is stronger than Trump’s was during his presidency, according to Gallup. Far more countries and their leaders aren’t touching Trump publicly. And, at least in the cases of Poland and Britain, they were giving Trump reasons not to rally his allies in Congress against the Ukraine aid bill. In other words, they were meeting with him at least in part because of the perception that he could kill the funding deal.

Many global leaders fear another Trump administration, and European leaders in particular are “steeling themselves” for that possibility, a senior Biden administration official said. “They certainly know he has influence over the GOP, that he’s the de facto leader of the Republican Party.”

That appears to be the common thread linking disparate players who seek Trump world support — or neutrality — when it comes to U.S. backing for Ukraine and NATO.

Trump’s influence with the far right in Congress is perceived to be so strong that Finland and Sweden quietly lobbied him not to kneecap their accession to NATO in 2022. The Trump campaign declined to confirm or deny conversations with NATO’s newest Scandinavian members.

Foreign leaders are also hedging their bets with the circle of aides and advisers around Trump, working through official and unofficial channels to arrange their meetings — when heads of state are not reaching out to the former president directly. After Trump met recently with one top U.S. ally, a diplomat for the country confessed to having at least six contacts offer themselves up as a liaison.

The dynamic reflects the challenge of dealing with a former president who has a wide universe of people working to mediate access to him, and whom he has no qualms about bypassing.

Last month, House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago as the assistance package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan began moving through Congress — and as Trump ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., threatened to force a vote on ousting Johnson in part because of that measure. When Donald Trump Jr. tweeted criticism of the $95 billion aid bill, the speaker texted the former president’s eldest son to ask for a phone call.

Johnson laid out arguments for the appropriations bill that he had previously made to a variety of conservative skeptics, according to people familiar with the call. Without issuing a “direct ask” for Trump Jr. to cease and desist from publicly torching it, according to one of the people familiar with the call, he was clear about the hope for fewer tweets. Trump Jr. had already decided he was done ripping the measure publicly, according to a second person familiar with the call, but listened to Johnson’s arguments.

The elder Trump, who has long questioned the wisdom of U.S. strategy in the Russia-Ukraine war, never explicitly called for the aid package to be killed. But the Republican base’s discomfort with sending U.S. money overseas, bolstered by Trump’s criticism of the same and a Democratic split over funding for Israel in its war against Hamas, combined to delay a deal for months.

When the aid package finally cleared Congress with decisive votes last month — enabling Biden to sign it into law — the victory had a legion of fathers, including the foreign leaders who appealed to Trump to keep his powder dry.

“President Duda is happy to see that just after his meeting with Trump, the Ukrainian aid package went through Congress, and he would be happy to see that his advocating for that cause played a role in that change of views that has happened,” Polish Embassy spokesman Nikodem Rachon said.

Of course, Biden and congressional leaders, who also met with Duda, were the main parents of the legislation.

The senior administration official played down any concerns from inside the White House about Trump’s meetings, perhaps in part because Biden ended up winning on the policy of funding Ukraine’s defense.

“I don’t get the sense that there’s a lot of pearl-clutching here about it,” the official said, suggesting the president’s re-election campaign might have a different calculus.

“Trump’s photo ops do little to erase his alarming rhetoric now or his disastrous record as president when he consistently sided with dictators over democracy, undermined our allies, and embarrassed our nation on the international stage,” Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement. “A second Donald Trump term promises to be even more dangerous than the first — promising to be a dictator on day one, letting [Russian President] Vladimir Putin do ‘whatever the hell he wants’ across Europe and abandoning our allies to make Americans at home less safe.”

In addition to the Biden campaign team, a second and third senior administration official said that, while it’s standard fare for the nominee of a major party to meet with foreign officials, they have been irked by the degree to which Trump has brought them to his homes and given the sessions the trappings of state visits.

That it irritates Biden won’t stop Trump from hosting foreign officials who ask for meetings, and his aides say they expect the list to grow. But it may act as a guardrail for the foreign officials.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan downgraded a planned meeting with Cameron in April after the British official met with Trump — holding a phone call instead of an in-person session — though the decision was attributed to a scheduling conflict rather than ruffled feathers.

Duda made separate trips to the U.S. in recent weeks as he sought to underscore the urgency of Washington providing another round of aid for Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion. Duda went to the White House in March and met with leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill at that time. But he waited until April to sit down with Trump.

“It didn’t actually happen at the same time because President Duda had his official meeting in Washington, D.C., with President Biden,” Rachon said.

When he returned to the U.S., eager to tell Trump that Poland is on track to boost its defense spending and explain his view of what’s at stake in Ukraine, Duda was treated to an extensive photo opportunity outside Trump Tower. They two men dined on steak inside Trump’s apartment and discussed Ukraine, among other topics, according to people familiar with their meeting. Duda sought to emphasize the indispensability of U.S. support for Ukraine and to make clear that even with European countries putting more money into their own defense — as Trump has demanded — U.S. backing is critical to their security, according to one Trump campaign official.

In the end, Biden and European leaders secured a policy victory, but the political impact remains to be seen. Trump has been able to use the sessions with foreign leaders to remind voters that he has cleared the bar for the presidency once — and to suggest that, even as a criminal defendant, he’s seen by some foreign leaders as a key ally.

“These leaders are coming over and the various legal actions against the [former] president have not been a hindrance,” the Trump campaign aide said. “They are unconcerned about public opinion back home. In many cases, they see it as a big positive to be seen with him.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com



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