As Donald Trump met Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Saturday, he was beset by potential diplomatic embarrassment.
First, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that on a previous diplomatic occasion in Washington, the American president caused embarrassment by mixing up the Baltic states and the Balkans.
Then, amid ceremonies in the French capital to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war, a planned presidential visit to the American cemetery at Belleau, a site of immense importance to the US military, was cancelled because it was raining.
Amid brewing international consternation, Trump was criticised in harsh terms by Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames, who tweeted: “They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen #hesnotfittorepresenthisgreatcountry.”
Nicholas Burns, an American diplomat who served both Republican and Democratic presidents, called that choice “astonishing”.
The Le Monde report concerned events in Washington in early April this year, when the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia visited the White House for a meeting and a joint press conference. At the press conference, Trump praised his visitors and their countries for being good members of Nato and for not producing “fake news”.
But Le Monde perhaps risked provoking a presidential tweet on the latter subject when it reported that at the private meeting, “Trump opened by attributing to [the Baltic leaders] the responsibility for the war in Yugoslavia”.
Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania, Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia and Raimonds Vējonis of Latvia, the paper said, took “a moment to realise that ‘Baltics’ and ‘Balkan’ were getting mixed up in the mind of the American president”.
Trump, Le Monde said, remained “apparently uneducated in the matter by his wife, Melania, originally from the former Yugoslavia”.
Melania Trump is from Slovenia, which gained its independence in 1991, at the start of the bloody Balkan conflicts which only ended with the Kosovo war of 1998-99.
The White House did not immediately comment on the Le Monde report.
At the Elysée Palace, Trump and Macron made nice for the cameras, despite a Trump tweet on Friday in which he said his opposite number’s remarks about Europe’s need for military security against the US, China and Russia were “very insulting”.
Trump told reporters: “We’re getting along from the standpoint of fairness.”
Despite the cancellation of the visit to Belleau, where nearly 2,000 US marines died in a ferocious battle in June 1918, Trump was scheduled to visit a different cemetery on Sunday, exactly 100 years since the end of the first world war.
A White House statement said the Belleau visit was “canceled due to scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather”, and said a delegation “led by Chief of Staff Gen John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joe Dunford” would attend on behalf of the Trumps.
Nonetheless, Burns, the former ambassador, committed his thoughts to Twitter.
“Did the President really not visit the American military cemetery today in France?” he asked. “It is his duty to honor our soldiers who fought in 1917-18.”
Among veterans groups, one progressive organisation responded angrily.
“Donald Trump complained about having to stand in the rain, to speak about the massacre in Pittsburgh, because it messed his hair up (more),” said VoteVets in a tweet, referring to Trump’s remarks after a mass shooting two weeks ago in which 11 people were killed. “Today, he will skip honoring fallen American heroes of WWI, and stay in his hotel room, because of some rain.”
Like the Baltic leaders, Macron visited Washington in April this year. As a gift, he brought Trump a tree from Belleau Wood.
The sapling was briefly the subject of intrigue when it disappeared from the spot on the White House lawn where Trump and Macron planted it. It was revealed to have been taken away temporarily, to be quarantined.
In one tweet on Saturday, Trump celebrated the 243rd birthday of the US Marine Corps. In another, the president asked of his French visit: “Is there anything better to celebrate than the end of a war, in particular that one, which was one of the bloodiest and worst of all time?”