This week in Trumpland: president has a meeting with the pope and a strange handshake with Macron, while the budget and healthcare dominate at home
Donald Trump left US shores last Friday with a persistent drumbeat of accusations about his and his associates links to Russia ringing in his ears.
He reportedly didnt really want to go on his first foreign trip as president, but he must at least have hoped that things might calm down at home while he was off touring Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium, the Vatican and Italy.
The terrorist bombing in Manchester ended up overshadowing much of his trip. But nevertheless while he was away the various investigations related to his contacts with Russia continued to inch forward.
First stop for the US president was Saudi Arabia, whose monarchy welcomed him with a series of military deals worth $350bn. In probably the most substantial speech of his trip, Trump called on the Gulf monarchs to do more to combat terrorist groups and backed the Arab autocracies in their rivalry with Iran. Drive them out, he said repeatedly of extremists at the climax of the speech, which was nevertheless notable for a softening of the Islamophobic rhetoric he has used with US audiences, as well as for an absence of any criticism over human rights.
Trump and his Saudi hosts seemed genuinely impressed with one another, with the US president accepting a gold medal from King Salman, taking part in a ceremonial sword dance, and laying his hands on a glowing orb in an image that was widely mocked. Everyone freaking out, its a GLOBE, wrote the New York Times James Poniewozik. You can see the continents. Just a conclave of powerful men laying hands on a fiery globe. This is normal. Back at home, a former Trump adviser, Michael Caputo, was asked to testify before the House intelligence committee over accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The US president was also greeted with open arms in Israel, where he took part in a series of photo opportunities at historic sites, criticised Iran again, but had little of significance to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The media was anyway more interested in the moment Melania Trump appeared to bat her husbands hand away as they visited Tel Aviv, a possible snub she repeated later in the week in Rome. Trump did find time to inadvertently confirm that Israel was the source of the controversial intelligence he shared with Russia earlier this month, when he protested: I never mentioned the word or the name Israel, seemingly corroborating media reports that that was the country in question.
Back home, it was reported that Trump had put pressure on the director of national intelligence and the head of the NSA to deny that there was evidence of collusion between his campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election (they reportedly refused).
The work of the US government has to go on, Trump or no Trump. So on Tuesday budget director Mick Mulvaney unveiled a more detailed version of the budget proposals the administration had published in March. The budget really the opening bid in a series of negotiations with Congress, which writes the final legislation included severe cuts to programmes that benefit the poor, and $1.6bn for the wall with Mexico, which experts think will cost at least ten times that. It also included a paid parental leave policy; the US, alone among the G7 industrialised nations, currently has none. But economists were sceptical about the 3% growth forecast the plan rests upon, and with Democrats set against it and Republicans such as John McCain calling it dead in the water it seems unlikely to make much progress.In Jerusalem, Trump called the terrorists behind Mondays bombing in Manchester that killed at least 22 people evil losers, a phrase intended to belittle them that divided opinion. And in Washington ex-CIA chief John Brennan revealed that there had been enough contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Moscow by last summer to justify further investigation by the FBI. And the Senate intelligence committee said they would again subpoena Michael Flynn, Trumps former national security adviser, over his contacts with Russia.
The Trump train called in at the Vatican on Wednesday, where the president met the pope for the first time. The two crossed swords last year when Trump was on the campaign train, and Vatican watchers felt Pope Francis was unusually sombre, although he did joke with Melania, asking her if she fed her husband potica, a delicacy from her homeland Slovenia. The pope also gave Trump some of his writings, including a work on the environment, on which they disagree. Well, I will be reading them, Trump claimed.
In Britain, the government was livid after a succession of leaks from US authorities to the American media about the Manchester investigation, which was still ongoing. The leaks at one point led Greater Manchester Police to suspend intelligence sharing with the US, although that was quickly resumed, and Trump ordered a review the issue of officials briefing to the press without permission is one he is used to, with a stream of critical stories about his administration swamping him since day one. Indeed, that same day a leaked call revealed Trump had praised the president of the Philippines brutal crackdown on drug dealing, in which thousands have been killed, and revealed to him the location of two nuclear submarines near North Korea.
Back in Washington, the first official independent analysis of the Republicans hastily redrawn healthcare plan predicted it would leave an extra 23 million people without health insurance over the next decade. And executives at the presidents hotel business said they would continue to risk violating the US constitution by allowing his company to profit from foreign government officials because they were not prepared to make efforts to check whether customers worked for overseas states, partly because this would be awkward for the Trump brand.
In Russia news, the New York Times reported that US spies had collected information last summer revealing Russian officials were discussing how to use Trumps advisers to exert influence over him, and CNN revealed that attorney general Jeff Sessions had not disclosed his meetings with Russian officials during his security clearance. (He had also failed to mention them during his Senate confirmation hearings, in case that headline seemed familiar.) And the House intelligence committee said it would join its Senate counterpart in subpoenaing Flynn.
Trump arrived in Brussels on Wednesday night for a meeting of Nato leaders, and, in an unwise piece of staging, they were lined up, some smirking and shuffling awkwardly like naughty children, as the US president delivered a critical speechinstructing them to increase their defence spending. He also caused some concern when he failed to expressly commit the US to Natos article 5, the mutual defence obligation at the heart of the alliance. And he was said to have told EU leaders he was worried Americans may lose jobs as a result of Brexit, despite having repeatedly praised Britains decision to leave the bloc. The days most celebrated PR gaffe was either Trumps aggressive series of handshake battleswith French president Emmanuel Macron, or his obnoxious shoving out of the way of Dusko Markovic, PM of Montenegro, Natos newest member. Welcome to the club, Dusko!
Back in Washington, the media and politicians were consumed by the assault on a Guardian reporter by Montana House candidate Greg Gianforte on Wednesday night. Many commentators identified the tone of contempt for the press set by the president as having contributed to the attack. Gianforte went on to win the election, but has been charged with misdemeanour assault.
Oh, and Trumps son-in-law Jared Kushner said he would cooperate with any investigation into the Trump campaigns ties to Russia following reports that he is under FBI scrutiny.
Flying south to Sicily, Trump pitched up along with most of his Nato colleagues at a meeting of the G7 industrialised nations, where there were fears divisions between the US president and his fellow leaders had become so pronounced that the usual full communique would have to be scrapped in favour of a brief statement. Italy had been hoping to engineer an agreement on migration and famine, but there were also disagreements between Trump and the other leaders on climate change, trade and food security.
Stay tuned for more news on Saturday, when the G7 finishes and Trump will finally get to head for home and the charms of a well-done steak and a familiar bed Arrivederci!