Washington’s great mystery: Trump’s affinity for Putin and populists baffles experts | US news

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Days after Donald Trump returned from another contentious encounter with his fellow G7 world leaders, a Kremlin-backed TV channel painted a derisive picture of his overtures to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Likening the US president’s staunch defense of his Russian counterpart to a tortuous love affair, the channel aired a mashup in which Trump’s speeches were pieced together to form the lyrics of Señorita – a summer ballad performed by the US pop stars Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello.

“I love it when you call me Señorita, I wish I could pretend I didn’t need ya,” Trump appeared to say. “Ooh, I should be running, ooh, you keep me coming for ya.”

The segment included images of Putin playing the piano, the pair in sync, much to the chagrin of the EU and members of the US Congress.

Trump’s affinity for Putin and other autocrats has long drawn criticism, for upending the norms of US foreign policy and alienating traditional allies. But his pro-Russia posture in Biarritz left former diplomats and national security experts baffled and sounding fresh alarms.

“Trump represents an American foreign policy tradition that we haven’t seen empowered in the presidency since before World War II,” said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for Europe from 2005 to 2009.

“The last time this kind of thinking was powerful in the United States, it was in the content of the isolationist movement … the belief that our getting involved in European security was not in America’s interests.

“It’s a cynical view that power is the only measure for success, and I happen to think it’s a dangerous view because it undervalues the free world.”

Trump signaled his intent to advocate on Putin’s behalf prior to departing for the G7 summit, publicly reiterating his view that Russia should be reinstated to the gathering of the world’s leading industrialized economies.

It was ejected in 2014, as punishment for the annexation of Crimea. Trump insisted the Kremlin should have a seat at the table and attributed Russian aggression in eastern Europe to the failures of his own predecessor, Barack Obama.

Other leaders, with the exception of Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, vehemently objected to Trump’s demands.

Within days of his return to Washington, Trump made another move that seemed likely to please Putin: officials said the White House was considering blocking $250m in military assistance to Ukraine. That would put Trump at odds with the Pentagon, which designated the funds to help counter pro-Russian separatists backed by the Kremlin.

“Trump’s deference to Putin remains one of Washington’s greatest mysteries,” said Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security adviser to former vice-president Joe Biden. “No one knows for sure whether it’s just Trump’s admiration for Putin’s authoritarian rule or it’s the fact that Trump owes Putin something.

“Either way, Trump’s refusal to speak ill of Putin or Russia’s aggression in its neighborhood and beyond is eroding US leadership and the transatlantic alliance.”

‘Allies are growing tired’

A two-year investigation led by the special counsel Robert Mueller examined Trump’s ties to Russia but found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy. Mueller did, however, find numerous instances of coordination and disclosed that Trump pursued a business deal in Moscow that could have earned him hundreds of millions of dollars.

Trump’s fixation with Russia was not the only source of consternation among foreign policy experts this week. He also skipped a discussion in Biarritz dedicated to addressing the climate crisis and fires burning across the southern Amazon.

After Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, said he would reject $20m in aid agreed to by the G7 nations and meant to combat the fires, Trump sided with Brazil.

“I have gotten to know [Bolsonaro] well in our dealings with Brazil,” he tweeted. “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil – Not easy. He and his country have the full and complete support of the USA!”

Bolsonaro has drawn comparisons to Trump, touting far-right nationalist views and making incendiary comments about women, indigenous groups and other minorities.

Donald Trump meets with Jair Bolsonaro at the White House in Washington DC, on 19 March. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Trump has also continued to pick fights with US allies, such as calling off a trip to Denmark after its prime minister dismissed his interest in purchasing Greenland.

“Allies are growing tired of the constant barrage of attacks, especially in light of his praise for authoritarian leaders,” said Smith. “Few in Europe see the two sides of the Atlantic sharing a positive common agenda.”

Trump’s foreign policy has been defined by escalating trade wars and his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which has dramatically increased tension between Washington and Tehran.

“The end result is that countries are starting to hedge and willingly cozy up to countries like China just in case the relationship with the US continues to deteriorate,” Smith said.

A new study by the Brookings Institution underscored the fragility of the transatlantic relationship when it measured policy success in the age of Trump through “the absence of disasters”.

“The US president and his administration have made their distaste for the European Union and some European allies plain,” the authors wrote. “The feeling appears to be reciprocated in many European quarters.”

“The calm, in other words, is deceptive and unlikely to last.”

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