President Donald Trump heads into the G-7 summit in coastal France more isolated than ever — and perhaps never more in need of the international coordination he has repeatedly assailed.
The president faces warnings of a U.S. economic downturn driven partly by his fractious trade negotiations with China. He blames other countries’ trade policies for mounting economic risks in the U.S., even as many of those countries teeter on the edge of recession. And Trump is expected to spend his time in southern France urging fellow leaders to follow his lead rather than changing course himself.
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Trump administration officials said the president is heading to Biarritz this weekend with resolve to tackle common global economic challenges — even as they continue to downplay fears of a U.S. economic slump around the corner.
“The great advantage of the G-7 is that these are challenges that are collectively shared by the world’s most advanced industrialized economies, and they can really dig in and come up with … solutions,” a senior administration official told reporters, adding that the U.S. specifically requested a session on the “global economy” at the summit.
The problem is, Trump has rarely embraced global governance and many economists blame his “America First” approach for propelling the widespread sense of economic uncertainty rippling across the globe.
“Each of these global meetings has become more adversarial,” said a former senior administration official, who cited the president pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran deal as top-line ways in which Trump has blown up the global order.
“That’s the consequence of the president’s non-orthodox approach: In general, America is more isolated,” the former official said.
Ever unpredictable, Trump adopted a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that blew up last year’s gathering of G-7 countries in Canada, distanced himself from European leaders in Paris at a World War I centennial commemoration last fall, and injected chaos into the G-20 summit in Japan this summer. In between those international gatherings, he launched Twitter broadsides against the since-removed British ambassador to the U.S., threatened to slap tariffs on French wine after the country enacted its digital services tax, and recently criticized European allies over what he views as inadequate contributions to NATO.
“G-7 summits have turned into a bit of a nightmare for all concerned and chances are this one could be especially terrible,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on multilateralism at the International Crisis Group.
The G-7 and G-20 became critical forums over the past decade for the world’s leading economies to confront ballooning crises. Their coordinated message and shared action in 2009 helped calm markets in the depths of the global financial crisis and spur a global economic recovery. Leaders used the gatherings in the years that followed to tackle the rockiest stages of the European debt crisis.
Trump’s animus toward international bodies, combined with his protectionist vision on trade, “means it’s really hard to see him having the sort of constructive private conversations that in its early days the G-7 was meant to foster,” Gowan said.
Trump heads into this round of G-7 meetings as the odd man out — breaking from long-standing norms for how advanced nations conduct economic policy.
“The great irony is that if other countries took the approach we did, they would be racking up huge deficits and politicizing the central bank,” said Douglas Rediker, a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If everyone were to emulate U.S. policy, then you would have a race to the bottom,” Rediker said.
The White House’s message heading into the G-7 remains as #MAGA as ever — with plans to tout the administration’s policies of tax cuts and deregulation as the panacea to other countries’ policy ills. The administration wants to urge other countries to follow the same path, or “bend to Trump’s will,” as one administration official put it.
“What the U.S. pushed for, while I was at the White House, was for countries to take actions to deal with their economic problems and to promote pro-growth economic policies — tax cuts and deregulation among other things. I think they will push that quite hard this weekend,” said Clete Willems, the former deputy assistant to the president for international economics in the Trump White House who is now a partner at Akin Gump.
Trump, who remains diametrically opposed to many of the positions held by his European counterparts on trade, has said he does not intend to back away from his policies, including his aggressive stance on China, which could drag American businesses and consumers into a painful recession.
A second administration official on Thursday said the G-7 has proven it is unable “to cope with actors like China coming onto the scene,” despite Trump’s purported efforts to rein in Beijing.
“It’s about time, whether it’s good for our country or bad for our country short term. … The fact is somebody had to take China on,” Trump told reporters this week.
His comments came amid growing evidence of trouble for other industrialized economies beyond the United States. Germany‘s central bank warned this week that its economy could shrink again in the third quarter — starting a recession — and much of the country’s economic slowdown has been attributed to the U.S.-China trade war, which has reduced Chinese demand for German imports.
“It seems like he is setting up a real challenge to the European Union’s economy and all this is going to do is continue to deteriorate his own economic outlook for his reelection,” said Heather Conley, Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Trump administration officials don’t see it that way. And they say the G-7 meeting’s agenda is full of potential land mines that are squarely aimed at baiting Trump.
A number of Trump appointees “think the whole G-7 agenda is an anti-U.S. agenda,” one person familiar with the concerns said.
Another U.S. official said Trump is already planning to confront French President Emmanuel Macron over the “highly discriminatory” 3 percent tax that France imposed on digital services revenues last month. In the conference call with reporters Thursday, administration officials said overtaxing tech would be framed as “counterproductive.”
Trump’s willingness to disagree with G-7 leaders on areas in which they once shared consensus has already had a notable impact ahead of the summit: Macron, who is hosting this year’s summit, confirmed Wednesday that he will skip the joint communiqué that has followed each G-7 meeting since 1975.
“I know the points of disagreement with the U.S. If we draft an agreement about the Paris [climate] accord, President Trump won’t agree. It’s pointless,” Macron said. (Trump suddenly withdrew his endorsement of the collective statement last year, citing frustrations with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his position on tariffs.)
Removing the communiqué from this year’s G-7 summit — which includes the U.S., France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy and the United Kingdom — is still unlikely to prevent disagreements from boiling over.
In a preview of what’s to come, administration officials said Trump plans to engage in blunt conversations with America’s European allies on trade and “multilateral reform.” He’s expected to highlight his administration’s recent attempt to modernize the World Trade Organization and to push for the removal of trade barriers that he claims have affected U.S. agriculture and other industries.
Trump will participate in five main sessions — including topics as varied as gender inequality, climate change and digital transformation — in addition to bilateral breakouts with his fellow G-7 leaders. Senior administration officials say the president is looking forward to those meetings, yet few expect the sessions will yield anything of substance.
One of those sit-downs will be with newly appointed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — the first time Trump and Johnson will meet face to face as leaders. They’ve spoken by phone four times since Johnson moved into No. 10 Downing and a White House official suggested Trump might launch a charm offensive to bring Johnson closer to his side on trade, climate change and Iran.
“There’s likely going to be a lot of sniping amongst the European participants over Brexit and obviously that creates the risk that Trump is going to speak up for Johnson,” Gowan said. “That could cause Johnson to run into a bit of a car crash with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel or Macron.” Johnson faces his own dangerous task of navigating Britain’s exit from the EU for which he has set a deadline of the end of October.
Less probable, but still being discussed among administration officials, is the possibility that Trump finalizes a partial trade agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the summit. An agreement that reinforces the president’s disruptive trade policies could bring minor relief to an otherwise tense three days in France, the White House official said. The president’s top trade adviser Robert Lighthizer met with Japan’s economy minister in Washington this week, after which the Japanese official said both sides “agreed to speed up discussions and work on the remaining issues for an early achievement of results.”
The summit in Biarritz begins Saturday evening with a welcome dinner hosted by Macron, and runs until Monday afternoon, when Trump is slated to host a press conference. The president is expected to be accompanied by National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, national security adviser John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Lighthizer.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.