Paris (CNN)First it was a second-place replacement for his own grand military parade. Then it was a stately gesture to illustrate an alliance he’s done little to cultivate. After a midterm election drubbing, it was an opportunity to retreat and regroup.
Yet by the time US President Donald Trump departed Orly Airport on Sunday, 44 hours after he arrived, the reasons for his trip to Paris had become largely obscured. It did less to bolster the transatlantic partnership than to expose its cracks. The 3,800 miles the President put between himself and Washington did little to buffer the boiling political crises back home.
And it was decidedly gloomier than the procession of tanks and troops Trump originally envisioned rolling through Washington on this date more than a year ago.
Attending the 2017 Bastille Day parade at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron, Trump was dazzled by the soldiers, armored tanks and fighter jets that painted the French sky red, white and blue — and informed high-ranking defense officials upon his return that he wanted a parade of his own in Washington.
Officials scrambled to put something together and set a tentative date of November 11. But when estimates for Trump’s military parade soared to nearly $100 million, officials realized they needed a backup plan to convince Trump a parade was too exorbitant. In the end, they persuaded him that dozens of other world leaders would be in Paris for the commemoration, and he needed to be, too.
But if Trump came to Paris expecting a parade that echoed the one he witnessed last summer, he was disappointed. The events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I were solemn and stately, and the wet streets of Paris were largely empty as the procession got underway Sunday.
As early as Saturday afternoon, the reasons for Trump to be in Paris at all had become obscured. Homebound at the US ambassador’s residence after foul weather forced the cancellation of a trip to an American burial ground, the President was invisible as his European counterparts memorialized the World War I slaughter across the former Western Front.
The White House declined to say how he spent the empty hours, though Trump tweeted in the evening he’d had “some very productive meetings and calls for our country today.”
The dire political predicament weighing on Trump cannot have been far from mind, despite the thousands of miles separating Paris and Washington.
Fresh off a midterm election that cost his party control of the House of Representatives, Trump kept an eye on his domestic difficulties while abroad. He accused election officials of rigging the vote in two US Senate races, repeated his claim that he does not personally know the man he tapped to become the acting attorney general and threatened to cut federal aid while blaming the deadly wildfires in California on “poor” forest management.
Officially, the reason for scrapping the journey to the Aisne-Marne American cemetery came down to safety: the President’s Marine One helicopter cannot fly in low cloud cover, a decision that is made by military and security officials and not the President. But there did not appear to be a backup plan and the President did not make any statements of regret at not being able to visit the cemetery.
Late Sunday, the White House defended the President’s decision not to attend, citing concerns about disrupting traffic.
“A car ride of two-and-a-half hours, each way, would have required closures to substantial portions of the Paris roadways for the President’s motorcade, on short notice,” said press secretary Sarah Sanders. “President Trump did not want to cause that kind of unexpected disruption to the city and its people.”
The optics were undeniably bad, partly because the episode only appeared to confirm the suspicions of Trump’s critics that he is uninterested in carrying out the traditional duties of the commander in chief. While reasonable-sounding to those familiar with presidential travel logistics, the White House’s explanations for the cancellation appeared inauthentic to casual observers.
White House officials were confident early Sunday that those criticisms would evaporate after the President’s appearance at the Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial, where more than 1,500 American soldiers are buried. His remarks, they said, would be the highlight of the trip. Trump addressed the crowd mutedly for roughly 10 minutes before leaving for the airport.
If the weather imbroglio was concerning him, it did not show.
“You look so comfortable up there under shelter as we’re getting drenched,” he called out to a group of American veterans. “You’re very smart people.”
Earlier Sunday, as world leaders gathered under misting rain at the Élysée Palace, Trump opted to head directly to the Arc de Triomphe, where the ceremony was being held. Driving down a deserted Champs-Élysées, a topless female protester breached the barricade lining the famous Parisian avenue and came within feet of the President’s motorcade before she was apprehended by French security officials.
The dozens of other leaders who met at the French President’s residence beforehand arrived in coach buses moments later, leaving Trump out of a striking scene as they marched down the street together with black umbrellas held over their heads, led by Macron. The White House said the President arrived separately because of “security protocols.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin also arrived separately and flashed Trump a thumbs up before taking his place on the riser.
The imagery may have been rooted in logistics, but as France and its European partners fret about the alliance forged with the United States in bloody conflict a century ago, it mattered. Trump has shown little appetite for strengthening the relationships that have underpinned transatlantic relations since the end of World War I, instead lambasting traditional US partners on trade and the cost of security.
He’s shown more affinity for strongmen leaders who have eroded democracy in their countries, like Putin, with whom he spoke at a lunch on Sunday, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who sat alongside him at dinner on Saturday.
That’s left leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macron, who put forth well-publicized displays of unity this weekend, to urgently warn of backsliding into history’s darkest moments.
Macron offered a clear message about the dangers of nationalism while hosting the ceremony commemorating the armistice Sunday. With Trump — a self-declared “nationalist” — seated stone-faced in front of him, Macron delivered a stinging rebuke of the US President’s “America First” agenda.
“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,” Macron said. “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying ‘our interests first; who cares about the others?’, we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great, and what makes it essential — its moral values.”
Macron later warned that “the old demons” have resurfaced, declaring that “giving into the fascination for withdrawal, isolationism, violence and domination would be a grave error” for which future generations would hold them accountable.