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Trump's 'unbreakable' bond with Macron may be tested by Iran deal, climate change

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French President Emmanuel Macron addresses members of Congress on April 25, 2018. (CNN Newsource)

President Donald Trump hailed his relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron as “unbreakable” at the start of a state visit this week, but the French leader’s address to Congress Wednesday signaled challenges ahead that may test that bond.

“It is a critical moment,” he said. “If we do not act with urgency as a global community, I am convinced that the international institutions, including the United Nations and NATO, will no longer be able to exercise their mandate and stabilizing influence. We would then inevitably and severely undermine the liberal order we built after World War II.”

In his speech to U.S. lawmakers, Macron asserted stances on Iran, Syria, climate change, trade, and globalization that seemed at odds with Trump’s stated views and his “America First” imperative.

“We can choose isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism,” Macron said. “This is an option. It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears. But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world.”

During the nearly-hour-long speech, Macron denounced “the rampaging work of extreme nationalism,” “the fascination for new strong powers,” and “the corruption of information.” He also called for “a new breed of multilateralism,” promoted “a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy,” and warned against engaging in “commercial war” over unfair trade practices.

“Some people think that securing current industries - and their jobs - is more urgent than transforming our economies to meet the global challenge of climate change…,” Macron said. “By polluting the oceans, not mitigating CO2 emissions and destroying our biodiversity, we are killing our planet. Let us face it: there is no Planet B.”

He then predicted the U.S. will someday return to the Paris climate accord from which Trump withdrew, eliciting a standing ovation from congressional Democrats.

In office for less than a year, Macron’s friendship with Trump has already led some in the press to label him a “Trump whisperer.” That rapport was on full display during meetings between the two this week and an official state dinner Tuesday.

“I think his meeting has been a big success,” said Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill. “If you look at the issues Trump discussed with Macron, issues related to terrorism, security issues, and trade—a lot was talked about and I think a lot was accomplished.”

However, Macron’s speech to Congress illustrated that, while he and Trump agree on priorities like peace in Syria and preventing a nuclear Iran, the gulf between the leaders over how to achieve them persists.

“The common ground is, something has to be dealt with in the right way to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons,” said Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador who now teaches diplomacy and conflict resolution at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. “They both agree on that but they clearly disagree on the tactics.”

On Iran, Macron said France and the U.S. have an obligation to remain in the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that was signed by the previous administrations.

“It is true to say that this agreement may not address all concerns, very important concerns,” he said of the deal reached to by the U.S., France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and Iran. “This is true. But we should not abandon it without having something substantial, more substantial, instead. That is my position.”

With Trump threatening to withdraw from the agreement in advance of a May 12 deadline to decide whether to continue waiving economic sanctions, Macron stated an opportunity exists for “a more comprehensive deal” that also addresses issues like ballistic missile testing and interference in neighboring countries. While such a deal is being negotiated, though, he urged the U.S. not to “leave the floor to the absence of rules.”

According to Cavanaugh, Macron’s visit to the U.S. had two primary objectives, one of which has proven far more successful than the other.

“He clearly came with two missions,” he said. “One was to get Trump to maintain the JCPOA. The other was to really shore up and solidify his personal relationship with the president.”

As he deepened his ties with Trump, Macron also needed to demonstrate a willingness to stand up to him when warranted, and the congressional address accomplished that.

“What he was looking for was showcasing his proximity to Trump, but at the same time, that he’s still capable of voicing differences, including in a public way,” said Celia Belin, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.

Macron did not explicitly tie Trump to the isolationism and support for authoritarians he denounced before Congress, but both critics and supporters of the president have interpreted it as a rebuke of his ideology. The positive reception it drew from Democrats in the room reinforced that perception.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Macron’s words “were received very well by about half of the body and not so well for my colleagues across the aisle.”

Following two days of public displays of respect between the two leaders, some Trump allies saw Macron’s speech as an insult to the U.S. president.

“The U.S. Congress gave Macron over a dozen standing ovations for doing so, celebrating his insistence that the United States should rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, and that the toxic Iran nuclear deal was and is a good idea,” wrote Breitbart London editor-in-chief Raheem Kassam. “In other words Macron just spat in the President’s face and Trump appears to have licked his lips and accepted it.”

On his radio show Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh described Macron’s speech as going “off the rails.”

“I think the guy was trying to placate everybody in the audience and certainly his audience back home where he’s in ratings trouble,” Limbaugh said.

By the end of the trip, some pretense of congeniality had eroded, with Macron telling reporters late Wednesday that the Trump administration’s shifting stances in foreign policy are “insane.”

“It is not good when the last-resort player of the game decides just to change its position I think,” Macron said. “It can work on the short-term but it is very insane on the mid- to long-term, and that is why I am very concerned by that—that for me is the main concern.”

For all of the hype surrounding Trump and Macron’s collegial relationship, Macron left Washington late Wednesday without much evidence that either had truly changed the other’s mind on any issues.

“I think what he did is he represented the position of France and the other key players on the importance of maintaining the Iran agreement,” Cavanaugh said. “I think he was frustrated that at the end he was not able to convince Trump there is not another easy solution.”

Macron said late Wednesday that he expects Trump will withdraw the U.S. from the Iran deal despite his arguments to preserve it, suggesting the president is intent on keeping his campaign promises.

“My view -- I don’t know what your president will decide -- is that he will get rid of this deal on his own for domestic reasons,” he said.

Macron’s call for a new comprehensive agreement to curb Iran’s disruptive behavior could be seen as a concession to Trump by some supporters of the JCPOA, according to Belin.

“He did step in the direction of Donald Trump by repackaging his ideas under the label of a new deal,” she said.

Macron also suggested slight movement by Trump away from a hasty withdrawal from Syria, though the White House maintains the president’s views have not changed.

“On Syria, Macron seems to believe he was able to convince Donald Trump that a framework for stability needs to be developed, whether or not Trump decides to pull out troops,” Belin said.

Following the address to Congress, Macron did not seem concerned about its impact on his relationship with Trump, insisting Wednesday that it is still “excellent” on a personal and national level.

As with any personal relationship, there is a nebulous element of chemistry at work between Trump and Macron, but the two men’s personalities seem to gel. A successful visit by Trump to France last year, including attendance at a Bastille Day celebration that prompted the president to seek his own military parade, helped solidify their connection.

“What you’re seeing is the personal relationships and the policy front are in very different places,” Cavanaugh said.

Having spoken recently with European Union officials in Brussels, Cavanaugh said they view Macron’s relationship with Trump as an asset, especially given Trump’s tensions with other European leaders.

“I think France really became the lead interlocutor for the EU now in dealing with the United States,” he said.

Trump has a frostier relationship with his next European guest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will visit the White House Friday. While she shares Macron’s objectives in shifting Trump’s stance on Iran and Syria, she is poised to receive a much less celebratory reception when she arrives in Washington.

“We should pay attention to what’s going on with Merkel now, to see whether Trump extends a minimum of respect and welcome to the German chancellor,” Belin said.

Policy differences aside, the closeness of Trump and Macron has proven mutually beneficial on the domestic front as well.

“It brings prestige to both of them,” Belin said. “Trump needed to have a strong European ally that would give him respect as much as Macron does… Vice versa, it looks good for Macron that he’s the one seen as being close to Trump.”

It is too early to judge public reaction to Macron’s state visit in either country, but in the past, even many in France who dislike Trump have been untroubled by Macron’s overtures to him.

“The value of a strong ability to engage for Macron is very high,” Cavanaugh said. “It doesn’t mean the president won’t tell him something and change his mind too, but at least he has access to the president to make the case.”