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President Trump opens armistice visit to France with jab at Macron

US President Donald Trump (R) and US First Lady Melania Trump arrive at Orly airport, outside Paris on November 9, 2018, ahead of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the 11 November 1918 armistice, ending World War I. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)

PARIS — President Donald Trump wasted no time taking a poke at his French host Friday as he arrived in Paris for events marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, tweeting as he landed that President Emmanuel Macron had made an “insulting” proposal to build up Europe’s military to counter the U.S., China and Russia.

It was a clear sign that the “America first” president was ready to chart his own course yet again as world leaders gathered to remember the coalition that brought an end to the first global war. President Trump’s visit comes on the heels of midterm elections in which Americans delivered a split referendum on his presidency, keeping the Senate in his party’s control but ceding the House to opposition Democrats.

He planned to meet with Macron on Saturday for talks on topics expected to include European security, Syria and Iran. As he arrived, President Trump tweeted that Macron “has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!”

President Trump’s brief visit to Europe comes amid uncertainty about the U.S. relationship with the continent. President Trump has railed against trade deals with the European Union and has criticized some EU nations, including France, for not spending enough to defense to sustain NATO, the decades-old Western alliance formed as a bulwark to Moscow’s aggression.

President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said Friday in Paris that the U.S. was concerned about stability in Europe and that President Trump was not shirking from global engagement. “I think the enduring lesson (of World War I) for the United States is that when you become a global power … you have global interests to protect,” Bolton said. “Great world leaders,” he said, are “driven by national interests.”

For Sunday’s armistice anniversary, President Trump was to join world leaders at a ceremony in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe.

“It should be a very beautiful period of time, the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I. We have many countries — the leadership from many countries will be there, especially since they heard the United States will be there. And we look forward to that,” President Trump told reporters Friday before leaving the White House. “I’ve seen what they have planned, and I think it’s going to be something very, very special.”

President Trump originally wanted to celebrate Veterans Day on Sunday with a grand military parade in Washington, as he was inspired by the tanks and flyovers he saw during France’s Bastille Day celebration when he visited Paris in July of last year. President Trump ordered the Pentagon to come up with plans for his own version, but they were eventually scrapped over concerns about costs and the damage tanks weighing many tons would do to the streets in Washington.

President Trump and Macron’s early relationship was marked by kisses, frequent meetings and marathon power handshakes. Early on, Macron tried to position himself as a sort of “Trump whisperer” and President Trump returned the favor, hosting Macron at the first and only state dinner of his presidency. But the relationship-building failed to persuade Trump to remain in the global climate change or Iran deals and did nothing to protect France from U.S. tariffs.

The dividends of Macron’s cultivation of President rump are “modest at best,” said Stewart M. Patrick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

At the same time, Macron has increasingly been positioning himself as a bulwark against the rising tide of Trump-style populism across Europe, speaking out loudly against the dangers of nationalism and isolationist retreat.

“He’s starting to become the antithesis of President Trump’s public messaging,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The president and first lady Melania Trump were expected to visit several memorial sites in France that are dedicated to American service members. Not on President Trump’s schedule, despite earlier discussions about the possibility, was an extended meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I don’t know that we’re seeing each other in Paris, but we may,” President Trump said. “There may be a lunch for the leaders.”

The White House and the Kremlin had previously considered a formal meeting in Paris. That now seems more likely for later this month, when they attend the Group of 20 summit of international leaders in Argentina.

President Trump and Putin have met previously on the sidelines of two summits and had their own bilateral meeting in July in Helsinki. At that meeting, President Trump would not say whether he believed Putin or U.S. intelligence agencies about their conclusions about Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election.