November 11th marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, which is observed in nations around the world through holidays such as Veterans Day in the United States, Armistice Day in France, and Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom, among others. Many world leaders gathered in Paris, France, this weekend to commemorate the event and to provide a show of unity. Unfortunately, despite traveling to France to partake, President Trump seemed absent much of the time.
New York Times, 100 years ago today: “Armistice Signed, End of the War!" pic.twitter.com/4k8cMaFFxN
— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) November 11, 2018
Yesterday, the president’s visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery was cancelled due to the bad weather. Several journalists reported that the military and security officials had determined that the president’s helicopter Marine One was unable to travel in the weather.
Chief of Staff John Kelly attended instead. Kelly served in the U.S. Marine Corps, so an opportunity to attend was undoubtedly meaningful for him.
However, Trump’s absence was particularly noticeable because other world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were in attendance at similar commemorative events in France that day.*
Then, earlier today, world leaders walked shoulder-to-shoulder along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, but Trump again did not participate. According to several reporters, he arrived separately by car.
Two strong images this morn; thousands gathered in the cold and wet, most lowering umbrellas despite pouring rain so others could see; and world leaders, presidents and princes walking side by side up the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe, the US President absent #Armistice100 pic.twitter.com/TaQd03000O
— Julia Macfarlane (@juliamacfarlane) November 11, 2018
President Trump did not arrive via bus with other world leaders today, leaving him out of that striking image of the leaders walking side by side down the Champs-Élysées. Sarah Sanders tells pooler @seungminkim he came separately because of security protocols.
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) November 11, 2018
These decisions, particularly the decision to skip the cemetery, sparked widespread debate.
According to the White House, the president did not instead travel by car because an hours-long presidential motorcade would have been disruptive.
WH also tells me they could not shutdown roadways around Paris for four hours to allow the president to take 100 miles round trip motorcade to American cemetery when bad weather grounded Marine One.
— Kelly O'Donnell (@KellyO) November 10, 2018
However, others, including former staffers for both Obama and Bush, argued there should always be a back-up travel plan in place and noted it was disappointing not to see America’s leader among world leaders at such a solemn event.
. @brhodes said there is "always" a backup plan for Potus bad weather travel. I just spoke with someone familiar with GWBush's travel. He agreed with Ben. Quick thread to shed a bit more light on typical WH protocols. 1/ https://t.co/nIC1kq4XJt
— David Nakamura (@DavidNakamura) November 10, 2018
The situation and subsequent debate made me wonder how I would have reacted had it been a Democrat president who was absent from such historic events with allies or from commemorations of fallen soldiers. For example (although not entirely comparable), former president Barack Obama was soundly criticized by the Right in 2010 for choosing to deliver remarks at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois instead of attending Memorial Day services at Arlington National Cemetery and again in 2013 when he chose not to attend the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (Meanwhile, at the time, many on the Left defended Obama’s actions.)
Ultimately, I believe that Trump’s decisions are worse, because they occurred at a global level and therefore were damaging at a global level.
First, it’s disappointing that the American president was not present to honor the lives of those who fell while in service to our country. Trump honoring these heroes, who helped make the world more free, could have helped to make up for the fact that he still hasn’t visited American troops overseas (last month, when asked in an interview with several AP White House reporters why he hasn’t visited a military base in a combat zone, Trump answered, “I will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary.”)
Second, it would have been much more powerful to see the American leader among other world leaders; as it was, America’s lack of presence was obvious. Optics remain important in such matters, as they affect how both Americans and foreign countries view American leadership, and Trump’s absence from the weekend’s photos will influence public opinion, whether or not that’s fair. (For example, Trump did visit a cemetery today, but the damage from yesterday’s headlines and the American president missing from photos of world leaders has already been done and cannot be undone.)
American leadership seemed invisible this weekend, which only serves to support the beliefs that America is isolating itself from the rest of the world and that other countries cannot and should not see America as reliable or as an ally. Global stability is dependent upon America and the role it plays in the world, and erratic or invisible American leadership is a risk the world cannot afford to take.
*This sentence has been edited for additional clarity.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.