For Leaders Abroad, the Prospect of a Trump Revival Is Ever-Present
"The indictment last week of Donald J. Trump has not changed the calculations of many world leaders who view his political resilience as inevitable.
LONDON — Whether foreign leaders view the potential return of Donald J. Trump to the White House with hope or horror, the prospect of a Trump restoration is so deeply ingrained overseas that leaders in several countries have hedged their bets in diplomacy, security and even where they invest their fortunes.
There were few signs that Mr. Trump’s indictment last week on criminal charges in New York has changed those calculations.
Foreign leaders have watched him bounce back from so many disasters, according to diplomats and foreign policy experts, that they now regard his political resilience with something approaching fatalism. This is especially true in Europe, whose leaders spent four years enduring Mr. Trump’s hectoring on a host of issues, including military spending and climate change.
Even if Mr. Trump’s legal woes end his political viability in a way that two impeachments and an election defeat to Joseph R. Biden Jr. did not, many worry that he will be replaced by any number of Trump-like alternatives, of whom the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, is the most prominent example.
“If Trump were really history, many in Europe would have fewer sleepless nights,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who ran the Munich Security Conference until 2022. “But the fundamental fear Trump provoked six years ago would not disappear.”
“What if the isolationist virus Trump unleashed continued to infect other candidates?” Mr. Ischinger said. “What if, instead of Trump, Republicans nominate another isolationist candidate for the presidency? And what if that candidate wins?”
These fears were deepened when Mr. DeSantis, the leading potential challenger to Mr. Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, recently characterized Russia’s war on Ukraine as a “territorial dispute.” He later walked back the comment under intense criticism from fellow Republicans.
But his remark, which echoed Mr. Trump’s casual treatment of the Russian invasion, arguably landed with a bigger thud in European capitals than in the United States, given the heavy dependence of Europe on American military and diplomatic support to maintain a unified resistance to Russian aggression.
“Trump is a phenomenon, but no longer unique,” said Kim Darroch, a former British ambassador to the United States. “He has spawned a whole generation of mini-Trumps and Trump-lites.”
“So if you believe that isolationism is growing in America, or it suits you politically to assert this, you don’t have to hang it all on Trump,” said Mr. Darroch, who was forced to leave his post in Washington after critical cables he wrote about the Trump administration were leaked in 2019. “There are plenty of alternatives.”
None of this is to say that Mr. Trump does not remain a singular figure, or that his legal woes are not drawing attention abroad. The case against the former president, with its lurid accusations of “hush money” paid to a pornographic film actress, is the kind of only-in-America spectacle that lends itself to tabloid headlines.
“The Bigly Usual Suspect,” said London’s Daily Star tabloid, with a collage of unflattering photographs of Mr. Trump against a backdrop used for mug shots.
“Trump will refuse to be handcuffed,” said The Times of London in a front-page article on Saturday that included an interview with Stormy Daniels, the actress who said she had a sexual relationship with Mr. Trump and received the payments from Mr. Trump’s lawyer in exchange for her silence.
But The Daily Telegraph, which leans to the right, focused on the potential upsidefor Mr. Trump with his hard-right political base, declaring, “Indictment is a golden opportunity for Trump.” The sense that Mr. Trump’s legal troubles could play out unpredictably extended to Parliaments and government offices.
For one thing, Mr. Darroch said, only those who follow the Trump saga closely will recognize that this is the first of potentially several indictments, in cases involving election interference and mishandling of classified documents. More casual observers will shrug it off, focusing instead on his lead in the polls over Republican rivals.
Part of the reason that some Europeans promote the view that Mr. Trump is resilient, he said, is that it furthers their geopolitical agendas.
In Britain, some on the right openly pine for the return of Mr. Trump, who championed Brexit and dangled the prospect of a trans-Atlantic trade agreement. President Biden shelved that, and while his relationship with Britain is cordial, he is less gushing than Mr. Trump was. Mr. Biden is skipping the coronation of King Charles III, the kind of showy, attention-saturated ceremony his predecessor would have savored.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has advanced European “strategic autonomy,” the theory that Europe needs to defend itself more independently of the United States. Mr. Trump’s derision of NATO was a key motivating factor, and a second Trump term, in which he might actually pull out of the alliance, would make it all but imperative.
In the Middle East, too, countries are hedging their bets about Mr. Trump’s return to power. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have invested in a private-equity fund started by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and former adviser Jared Kushner. The investments, experts say, reflect their desire to stay on good terms with Mr. Kushner, who is married to Mr. Trump’s elder daughter, Ivanka Trump.
“The Saudis, in particular, are betting on a return of Trump, or at least a Republican president,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel. “The relationship between Biden and M.B.S. is so fraught that A.B.B. — anybody but Biden — is his approach,” Mr. Indyk said, referring to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Mr. Indyk said he was skeptical that Arab leaders would change their calculations because of the indictment. “I doubt they’ve concluded yet that this will take Trump out of the contest,” he said. “And if it does, it might open the way to another Republican who has more chance of defeating Biden.”
In Israel, analysts said, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would also likely welcome the return of Mr. Trump, not least because they share the same problems. Both face legal charges: in Mr. Netanyahu’s case, allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he has fought with a highly unpopular — and now temporarily halted — attempt to exert more control over the judiciary. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu has accused prosecutors of waging a politically motivated attack on him.
To American allies, Mr. Trump’s unrelenting assault on the U.S. legal system, and the fact that he has been backed up by so many other Republicans, is perhaps the most alarming short-term fallout from his indictment.
Yet for adversaries like Russia and China, the prospect of Mr. Trump mounting another campaign for the presidency, while at the same time defending himself from criminal charges, plays into their narrative of American chaos and decline.
Evan S. Medeiros, a former China adviser to President Barack Obama, said, “The Chinese will use this to reinforce the argument they’ve long made: that America is consumed by its democratic dysfunction, and that China is a better bet.”