MUNICH - Amid global anxiety about President Donald Trump’s approach to global affairs, U.S. officials had a message to a gathering of Europe’s foreign policy elite this weekend: pay no attention to the man tweeting behind the curtain.
U.S. lawmakers - both Democrats and Republicans - and top national security officials in the Trump administration offered the same advice publicly and privately, often clashing with Trump’s Twitter stream: the United States remains staunchly committed to its European allies, is furious with the Kremlin about election interference and isn’t contemplating a preemptive strike on North Korea to halt its nuclear program.
But Trump himself engaged in a running counterpoint to the message, taking aim on social media at his own national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, because he "forgot" on Saturday to tell the Munich Security Conference that the results of the 2016 weren’t affected by Russian interference, a conclusion that is not supported by U.S. intelligence agencies. They say they will likely never be able to determine whether the Russian involvement swung the election toward Trump.
The determination to ignore Trump’s foreign-policy tweets has been bipartisan.
"There is a lot more support for continuing our past policies than it might appear from some of the statements," Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told an audience on Sunday that was comprised mostly of Europe’s foreign-policy elite. "The unanimity comes from those folks who are actually operationalizing policy."
"The values are the same, the relationships are the same," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio. "What you do see is this administration willing to put pressure upon the systems."
The question of whom they should believe - the president or his advisers - has befuddled European officials. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel confessed Saturday that he didn’t know where to look to understand America.
"Is it deeds? Is it words? Is it tweets?" he asked.
He said he was not sure whether he could recognize the United States.
Away from the glare of television cameras, many European diplomats and policymakers echoed the same concerns. One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid provoking Trump, asked whether policymakers like McMaster who adhere largely to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions were falling into the same trap as Germany’s elite during Hitler’s rise, when they continued to serve in government in the name of protecting their nation.
The answer, the diplomat said, might be found following "nuclear war," which he feared could be provoked by Trump administration’s hawkish approach to North Korea.
Testing those lines, McMaster offered a starkly different view of the world from his own boss, saying that the "evidence is now incontrovertible" that Russia intervened in the U.S. political system. Trump has downplayed Russian involvement, saying that he believes the reassurances of Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin was not involved in the election.
McMaster even walked back some of his own previous tough language. Asked about a Wall Street Journal op-ed he co-authored with White House economic adviser Gary Cohn last year that said they embraced a world that was "an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage," McMaster said it was actually a call for greater cooperation among Western powers.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats took a similarly reassuring stance hours later.
The assertions that nothing fundamental has changed about Washington’s commitments to the world do seem to have eased some concerns among some allies, particularly regarding the U.S. commitment to defend NATO allies against the threat of Russian aggression.
In the Baltic nations, which border Russia, Trump’s election had raised concerns about U.S. commitments to NATO. But that doubt is now "gone," Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid said in an interview, embracing the Pentagon’s stepped-up military commitments to Eastern Europe.
Even hawkish Republicans shrugged away from Trump’s top priorities. While speaking on a panel Friday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was cued up by a questioner to attack the "failure" of Europe to spend 2 percent of its economic output on defense - a frequent Trump talking point. Graham demurred.
"I want you to get to 2 percent so Trump will be quiet," he said before swiftly moving on.