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Why Trump Is a Salesman With Autocrats and a Slumlord With Allies

On his first foreign trip, he charmed the Saudis and shamed NATO.

Trump with Belgium's King Philip. AFP/Getty

Since becoming president, Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to explicitly endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires member nations to come to each other’s military aid. But that was supposed to change on Thursday, with a speech at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. The New York Times reported Wednesday that “Trump is expected to publicly endorse NATO’s mutual defense commitment at a ceremony on Thursday at the alliance’s headquarters, an administration official said, breaking months of silence about whether the United States would automatically come to the aid of an ally under attack.”

Well, either the administration official lied or Trump changed his mind. Because Trump, who has been berating and disappointing America’s allies for many months now, did so yet again on Thursday.

As he has done repeatedly since inauguration, Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the NATO pledge in his speech. (He did say, “We will never forsake the friends who stood by our side” after the 9/11 attacks, the only time the Article 5 commitment has been invoked. Some consider that clear enough.) Instead, he made his familiar complaint that many NATO members are free riders who take advantage of American taxpayers. “We have to make up for the many years lost” due to “chronic underpayments,” he said. “If NATO countries made their full and complete contributions, then NATO would be even stronger than it is today.” He also implied that the alliance was living high on the hog. “I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” he said. “I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful.” His snide remark ruffled other leaders. “Standing off to the side of Trump’s podium, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel stifled laughter,” the Independent Journal Review reported, “and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel raised his eyebrows and turned his head to the side. Several other heads of state clustered around them cringed.”

Trump treated the NATO leaders like a slumlord who, to justify raising the rent, points to his tenants’ lavish spending habits. Which is fitting, given Trump’s business background. In 1985, the Times described the young Trump as having a dual existence as “doer and slumlord both”: “If he isn’t building a skyscraper castle or a football team, he is trying to harass some tenants out of one of his properties.” (Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, is challenging him for the mantle of the worst slumlord in the White House.) But Trump was also a real estate and brand-licensing tycoon. So he is a salesman and slumlord both: When he wants to close a deal, he’ll lay on the charm and say anything to achieve his ends. When he wants collect payments, he turns blustery and nasty, hoping to shame his mark into paying.

Both sides of Trump were on full display in his first foreign policy trip. He was a salesman in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, and then a slumlord in Europe.

In contrast to the way he needled and hectored America’s democratic allies in NATO, Trump made every effort to ingratiate himself with Saudi Arabia’s brutal, dictatorial royal family. He joined in a bizarre photo op to touch a glowing orb (a globe to symbolize King Salman’s Global Center for Combating Extremism) and bobbed along for a ceremonial sword dance. He also agreed to a 28-point joint statement that reads like a Saudi wish list. Fighting ISIS, which Trump claims is his highest priority, appears more than halfway down the list, well below multiples promises to work together strategically and economically and also limit Iran’s maritime power. Subsuming America’s Middle East policy so completely to Saudi Arabia might seem extreme, but it was all part of Trump’s hard-sell approach: He wanted to close a $110 billion arms sale to the kingdom.

But his glad-handing approach to Saudi Arabia is about more than just money. Trump is very much at home with autocrats, who, unlike democratic leaders, aren’t constrained by popular opinion and the rule of law. This explains why, in a phone call last month, Trump praised Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug war and even revealed the secret location of two U.S. nuclear submarines. Trump had a similarly amiable conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, when they discussed bombing Syria while they ate what Trump called “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen.” As described by Trump, the conversation with Xi feels like a gangster move: two stone-cold killers casually talking about distant violence over a good meal.

The evident pleasure Trump takes from the company of men like Salman, Duterte and Xi has deep roots. Trump has a decades-long history of praising dictators, seeing them as tough, can-do leaders who can effect real change. Since becoming president, Trump has discovered that the power of the office is constrained by the Constitution and popular opposition. Suffering setbacks, like having his immigration order stayed by the courts, seems to have only increased Trump’s fondness for leaders who enjoy unchecked power. In talking to a Duterte, Trump can enjoy vicariously the fantasy of absolute power.  

While Trump slips into salesman mode with autocrats like King Salman, Duterte, and Xi, he becomes visibly uncomfortable with democratic allies. He has a famously awkward relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As it happens, former President Barack Obama was also in Europe on Thursday—at an event in Berlin, with Merkel. “Merkel was clearly happy to have Obama there,” Politico reported, “using him as both a buffer and explainer for some the issues she’s taken the most heat for, like welcoming tens of thousands of refugees.” Trump, meanwhile, was busy insulting Germany:

Trump did try to make his peace with one European leader. He told newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, “You were my guy’,’ and denied he was rooting for nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen to win the runoff earlier this month. This was a fence-mending exercise, necessary because of what Trump said about Le Pen before the election: “She’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” More revealing was the moment Trump awkwardly shouldered aside Montenegro’s prime minister, Duško Marković.

Trump’s dual role runs many risks. The countries Trump is trying to win over are not run by idiots. They’ll see through his rhetoric—if they don’t already—and only make deals based on their self-interest, not on Trump’s flattery. Meanwhile, the nations he’s treating like laggard renters might soon decide that they don’t need to put with such disrespect. Rather than paying the United States protection money, they might choose to look after their own affairs, leaving America isolated. Being a salesman and a slumlord might get you far in New York real estate, but they have limited value on the international stage.