WASHINGTON – It was a good few days to be an authoritarian leader.
At the Group of 20 gathering in Japan, leaders who can find themselves shunned at such multilateral summits were the focus of U.S. President Donald Trump’s attention, humor and respect across Friday and Saturday.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a “tough cookie” and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “friend” who has done a “spectacular job.” Trump said he had a “tremendous discussion” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And Chinese President Xi Jinping is “one of the great leaders in 200 years.”
Then on Sunday Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea, a day after he issued a surprise invite via Twitter for Kim Jong Un to meet him at the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily fortified border between the North and South.
What was intended as a handshake and brief chat turned into an unscheduled meeting lasting about an hour.
The encounters marked a welcome and long-sought return from the cold for the likes of Putin and bin Salman, who have otherwise been the target of sanctions, isolation and opprobrium from the U.S. government. All came away having gained from the exchange, whether something concrete like trade concessions, or more nebulous, such as legitimacy and respect.
“This G20 meeting has been less about the largest economies of the world, and more about a few illiberal political economies that have influence on the largest economy of the world — the U.S.,” said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Both Russia and Saudi Arabia have used the conference to demonstrate their ability to capture Trump’s attention and praise.”
The chummy mood was a stark reversal from the prior G20 in Buenos Aires in November. Then, Trump’s team scrubbed a meeting with Putin over Russia’s capture of 24 Ukrainian sailors in a Black Sea naval clash. He rejected a formal sit-down with Crown Prince Mohammed over the killing of U.S. columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Since then, Putin hasn’t released the Ukrainian sailors, and a United Nations expert assigned to investigate Khashoggi’s death has said that the crown prince’s possible role should be probed. (He has denied any involvement.)
The U.S. president treated them warmly anyway.
After meeting Putin, Trump told reporters that the Russian leader was a “terrific person.” He defended the crown prince in a news conference, declaring that “nobody, so far, has pointed directly a finger at the future king of Saudi Arabia,” overlooking both the U.N. report and a U.S. intelligence assessment that Prince Mohammed signed off on the killing.
Trump has always prided himself on his willingness to speak with anyone, no matter how poor their record on human rights or their defiance of the United States.
“I think talking is great,” he said in Osaka. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, don’t talk to them. Don’t talk to them.'”
But he seems unaware of the pitfalls of the approach. Chief among them: Foreign leaders feel encouraged to stick with a strategy, now tried and tested, to circumvent the rest of the U.S. government and appeal directly to Trump.
“It sends the wrong message,” Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, said in a tweet.
At his news conference, Trump presented an extraordinary defense of Erdogan’s plan to buy a Russian anti-aircraft missile system in defiance of the U.S. and NATO. Trump claimed — inaccurately — that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had refused to sell the U.S. Patriot missile system to Erdogan’s government.
“Honestly, it is not really Erdogan’s fault,” he said.
In fact, the U.S. has repeatedly offered to sell the Patriot system to Turkey since 2013, but Erdogan has sought a transfer of technology with the deal so that he can develop and produce his own missiles. The U.S. has declined.
U.S. officials have privately expressed frustration that the president’s approach is complicating their ability to squeeze concessions from Turkey and get Erdogan to give up on the Russian S-400 system. But Erdogan has calculated that Trump will quash any effort by the administration or Congress to sanction Ankara if he goes ahead with the purchase.
Asked repeatedly in a meeting with Erdogan if he would proceed with the sanctions, Trump didn’t answer directly. “We’re looking at it,” he said.
Congress will almost certainly resist. Even some of Trump’s stalwart allies appeared queasy with his approach at the G20.
They included Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who criticized the president for concessions to China’s Huawei Technologies Co. as Washington and Beijing press forward with trade talks.
“If President Trump has agreed to reverse recent sanctions against #Huawei he has made a catastrophic mistake,” Rubio said in a tweet. “It will destroy the credibility of his administration’s warnings about the threat posed by the company, no one will ever again take them seriously.”
One strongman not at the event also enjoyed Trump’s affirmation.
Before leaving the G20 for a stop in South Korea, Trump offered to meet Kim at the DMZ, apparently for the sheer spectacle.
After their sit-down Sunday, Trump announced the resumption of talks over North Korea’s nuclear program.
North Korean leaders have craved a meeting with a U.S. leader for decades to legitimize their own rule and, obliquely, their nuclear ambitions. Trump’s sit-down with Kim was their third, even though there has been no progress for months in convincing Pyongyang to relinquish its arsenal.
“We are trying to work it out,” Trump said. “A handshake means a lot.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a candidate for president, said diplomatic relations require more than talk.
“You just can’t look at this as going over and talking to your dictator next door and bringing them a hot dish over the fence,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. The U.S. needs to make “sure there are measurable results, that we have a plan when we go in there and we just haven’t seen that.”