Just as we’re getting used to the eerie calm in international affairs, with an American president happy to deliver old-fashioned bromides about peace and understanding, comes an invigorating reminder of what we’re missing. Trump Takes on the World (BBC Two) is a three-part documentary that unpacks the previous president’s “unique” foreign policy, starting with the fruity approach he took to his European allies in the first 18 months of his term.
As ever with Trump documentaries, the archive footage is a waltz down nightmare memory lane, a succession of jaw-on-the-floor “I’d forgotten he said/did/tweeted that!” episodes: holding Theresa May’s hand at the White House, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, threatening to leave Nato, sitting Melania next to Putin at a G20 dinner to give him a natural opportunity to say hi, calling himself a “very stable genius”.
There’s nothing revolutionary about the storytelling, but the quality of the interviewees makes the film unmissable. I’d have thought everyone close to Trump’s presidency would be taking a few years off, possibly having committed themselves to an ashram, but here they all are, twisting the knife or defending their complicity or both: Gary Cohn, Jim Mattis, HR McMaster, Kim Darroch, Francois Hollande, Fiona Hill, Jeremy Hunt, John Bolton, and on and on.
The result is a frank, convincing portrait not just of Trump, but of the world of summits and press conferences in which these people operate, as petty as any playground except with more nuclear weapons and Novichok. I’d forgotten how much ended up riding on whether a statement would refer to “the rules-based international order”, rather than “a rules-based international order”. Talk about articles of war.
Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, may be the most illuminating interviewee, although Hollande gets points for suggesting to Trump, with a twinkle in his eye, that he appoint Henry Kissinger to his first cabinet. Bolton is one of the few who tries to articulate the thinking – or at least the gut feeling – behind the president’s decision-making, instead of simply taking the chance to dunk on his old boss. There was a real sense that Nato members were not paying their way, and that at summits America was often browbeaten into statements it did not support. In his own outrageous style, Trump made European nations pay more attention to their security and take American support less for granted. Not that it was easy for his staff. In the final moments of the first film, Hill describes watching the press conference with Putin where Trump, asked about meddling in the presidential election, took the side of the Russian president over his own intelligence agencies.
"It became a disaster,” she says. “I literally did have in my mind the idea of faking some kind of medical emergency and throwing myself backwards with a blood-curdling scream.” There were moments when we all felt like that. The only reason Biden’s advisors might fall backwards during his press conferences is that they’ve fallen asleep. Most are grateful for the new era in American foreign relations, although possibly not documentary-makers.
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