Confusing civility with comity is a grave mistake in human or international relations. Yes, the Group of 20 summit issued a common communique after the leaders’ meeting. Some see this as an indication that some normality is being restored in international relations between the United States and other countries. The truth is that at no previous G-20 did the possibility occur to anyone that a common statement might not be agreed to by all participants.
All of this is troubling enough. The elephant in the room, however, is the president’s character and likely behavior in the difficult times that come during any presidential term. Biographer Robert Caro has observed that power may or may not corrupt but it always reveals. Trump has yet to experience a period of economic difficulty or international economic crisis. He has not yet had to make a major military decision in a time of crisis. Yet his behavior has been, to put it mildly, erratic.
The president chose hours before meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to cast doubt on judgments of the U.S. intelligence community regarding Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. On the brink of the most important set of international meetings of his presidency so far, he put forward the absurd idea that a main G-20 discussion item involved Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, in the process making demonstrably false assertions about Podesta’s role.
It is rare for heads of government to step away from the table during major summits. When this is necessary, their place is normally taken by foreign ministers or other very senior government officials. There is no precedent for a head of government’s adult child taking a seat, as was the case when Ivanka Trump took her father’s place at the G-20 on Saturday. There is no precedent for good reason. It was insulting to the others present and sent a signal of disempowerment regarding senior government officials.
A corporate chief executive whose public behavior was as erratic as Trump’s would already have been replaced. The standard for democratically elected officials is appropriately different. But one cannot look at the past months and rule out the possibility of even more aberrant behavior in the future. The president’s Cabinet and his political allies in Congress should never forget that the oaths they swore were not to the defense of the president but to the defense of the Constitution.