Critics pile on after Trump cancels visit to U.S. military cemetery outside Paris

President Donald Trump, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron meet at the Elysee Palace during World War I commemoration ceremonies in Paris on Saturday. (Bloomberg photo by Marlene Awaad)
President Donald Trump, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron meet at the Elysee Palace during World War I commemoration ceremonies in Paris on Saturday. (Bloomberg photo by Marlene Awaad)

PARIS - President Donald Trump flew 3,800 miles to this French capital city for ceremonies to honor the military sacrifice in World War I, hoping to take part in the kind of powerful ode to the bravery of the armed forces that he was unable to hold in Washington.

But on his first full day here, it rained on his substitute parade weekend.

Early Saturday, the White House announced Trump and the first lady had scuttled plans, due to bad weather, for their first stop in the weekend's remembrance activities - a visit to the solemn Aisne Marne American Cemetery, marking the ferocious Battle of Belleau Wood.

It was not completely clear why the Trumps were unable to attend. The cemetery is 50 miles from Paris. Perhaps the president was planning to travel on Marine One, which is occasionally grounded by the Secret Service.

But the sight of dignitaries arriving at other sites outside Paris, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, led some foreign policy analysts to speculate the U.S. commander in chief just wasn't up for it.

"It's incredible that a president would travel to France for this significant anniversary - and then remain in his hotel room watching TV rather than pay in person his respects to the Americans who gave their lives in France for the victory gained 100 years ago tomorrow," David Frum, who served as a speechwriter to former President George W. Bush, wrote in tweets. Trump is actually staying at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris.

So began a weekend in which Trump - battling on a number of political fronts in Washington - seemed distracted and disengaged. Trump left Washington as the list of White House worries piled up: newly empowered Democrats, criticism of his pick for acting attorney general and backlash over his personal attacks against journalists.

Trump was in France in body but appeared unenthusiastic in spirit.

The White House said Chief of Staff John Kelly and Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, would attend the Belleau ceremony in the Trumps' absence, but Frum suggested Trump could have tried to scramble a motorcade to keep his schedule.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, noted he helped plan Obama's foreign travel throughout his two terms and said it was common to have a backup plan to deal with inclement weather.

"There is always a rain option. Always," he wrote in a tweet. "Trump will use the U.S. military for a pre election political stunt but sits in his hotel instead of honoring those who fought and died for America."

The cemetery has 2,288 gravesites honoring those who died, including many Americans. The names of 1,060 more Americans who went missing and whose bodies were not recovered are engraved on the walls of the site.

Trump held a bilateral meeting with Macron, but the U.S. president appeared subdued, almost sullen, as Macron tried to mask growing tensions between them.

When Macron tried to pat Trump's thigh, the president ignored him and didn't acknowledge the touch or reciprocate it - a marked difference from their demonstrative power-grip handshakes and back slaps during previous meetings.

Trump is still planning to attend the featured ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday where more than 100 world leaders will pay homage to the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War.

But he won't really get a parade. The event will not feature tanks or missiles like the parade Trump had envisioned on the streets of Washington on Veterans Day but canceled due to exorbitant costs.

After another scheduled visit to a ceremony on Sunday, the president plans to fly home just as Macron's Paris Peace Forum kicks off for three days of meetings aimed at galvanizing global action on shared challenges, such as climate change.

Thomas Wright, a Europe expert at the Brookings Institution, noted Trump announced he was going to France on a whim in August after abruptly canceling his order for the Pentagon to stage a parade.

The Peace Forum was intended "a bit as a counterpoint to 'America First,' " Wright said, referring to Trump's nationalist foreign policy in which he has unsettled allies on trade and defense. "Now they have this weird situation of Trump being there [in Paris] but the forum going against everything he and [National Security Adviser John] Bolton stand for. ... My impression is that he's going to pretend like it's not happening."

In the evening, Trump tweeted that he had spent the afternoon in meetings and making calls, though he gave no details. He followed up with a tweet warning he is closely watching the election recount in the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races in Florida. "Trying to STEAL two big elections in Florida!" he wrote, apparently referring to Democrats.

Trump's critics, including former national security aides under President Barack Obama, piled on - payback, perhaps, for the times Trump ridiculed Obama by calling him feckless and weak on the world stage.

In the two years since his election, Trump has not visited troops in an active war zone - an attempt to make a surprise visit to the Korean demilitarized zone in November 2017 was aborted when Marine One was forced to turn around due to bad weather.

The Paris weather forecast shows more rain for Sunday.

 

 

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