Trump’s possible return looms over deals Biden cut at G7 summit

BARI, Italy — For all the ambitious plans that President Joe Biden and his counterparts unfurled at the summit meeting that ended Saturday, the cold reality is that many of the leaders may not remain in office long enough to see them ripen.

A populist, far-right movement rippling through Europe and the U.S. threatens to unseat Biden and some of his closest allies, jeopardizing the deals forged over the past few days on Ukraine’s defense.

From left, Charles Michel, Olaf Scholz, Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron, Giorgia Meloni, Joe Biden, Fumio Kishida, Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen at the G7 on June 13 in Borgo Egnazia, Italy.Alex Brandon / AP

The traditional “family photo” taken at the Group of Seven (G7) summit of the wealthiest democracies largely portrays an embattled set of world leaders who’ve fallen out of step with some of their constituents. Successors would be free to take much of what they produced in southern Italy and tear it up if they saw fit.

According to April polling from NBC News, Biden’s approval rating stands in the low 40s and he’s running about even with former President Donald Trump. If he is defeated in November, Ukraine will lose its most valuable partner in keeping Russian President Vladimir Putin from overrunning the country.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s centrist president, recently called snap elections, giving rise to the prospect of the far right gaining control of France’s legislature and forcing him into a power-sharing arrangement.

European elections this month saw right-wing forces make gains in Germany, throwing into question moderate leader Olaf Scholz’s chancellorship.

“This is the last time this group will meet in this configuration with these leaders,” Josh Lipsky, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, said ahead of the summit. “It all conveys a sense of urgency and the stakes around this G7. And it has a feeling to me of [the] last chance to do something big before things may change significantly.”

The fragility of the G7 leadership was nothing members wished to advertise. A senior Biden administration official told reporters that “our election” didn’t come up in meetings. But the worldwide elections loomed over the proceedings nonetheless.

A much-touted 10-year security pact unveiled Thursday between the U.S. and Ukraine could conceivably shrink to a seven-month alliance depending on how the 2024 presidential election goes.

Biden and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed the pact with a flourish before their joint news conference Thursday night. In front of television cameras, each signed a document and then passed it to the other across the table for his signature.

Another president, though, would be free to ditch the partnership if he chooses. Either the U.S. or Ukraine may pull out of the deal simply by notifying the other, according to the conditions of the pact.

That isn’t likely to happen if Biden wins, but Trump is more of a wildcard. He has said that, if elected, he would end the war between Ukraine and Russia within 24 hours.

Zelenskyy has said he doubts that’s possible. Even Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, has said the only way his old boss could pull that off would be by caving to Putin.

The G7 leaders are mindful of the election calendar. Some of the agreements seemed designed to “Trump-proof” foreign policy in case Biden loses.

In another deal unveiled at the summit, the leaders announced they would loan Ukraine $50 billion to help fight Russia and rebuild the country. The money will go to Ukraine this year, backed by about $300 billion in frozen Russian assets, and the U.S. is prepared to front the entire amount of the loan if necessary, Biden administration officials said.

The timing matters. If Trump wins, he won’t enter office until Jan. 20, 2025, meaning Ukraine will have pocketed the money before Trump took office.

Still, given the vast powers of the presidency, there’s little Biden can do to lock in U.S. support for Ukraine if Trump returns and opts to take foreign policy in the opposite direction.

“There’s no such thing as ‘Trump-proofing,’ ” said Alexander Vindman, former director of European affairs in Trump’s White House. “That’s a mirage. You can’t do it if the president of the United States has a diametrically opposed worldview.”

Gone for nearly four years, Trump is a growing focus of G7 and other world leaders as his rematch with Biden nears. As president, he sparred frequently with longtime American allies, some of whom question his commitment to a post-World War II order rooted in alliances among democratic nations.

“When I travel internationally, the one question I get from our friends and allies is, ‘What’s going to happen? Is America still committed to rules-based engagement around the world or not?’” said John Kelly, a one-time Trump White House chief of staff who broke with the former president. “They also ask about our upcoming election and what the former president, if reelected, might do in regards to America remaining engaged around the globe.”

“I will discuss the possibilities, but always end that the majority of Americans understand the wisdom of staying involved around the globe working with friends, partners and allies to deter war and preserving peace,” Kelly continued.

Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told NBC News: “The grim possibility of a return of Trump is of course a part of most foreign policy discussions with our allies. None of them want a return of Trump because they don’t trust him.”

For his part, Trump sought to portray Biden as a diminished figure who embarrassed the U.S. during his appearance at the summit.

At his 78th birthday party Friday in West Palm Beach, Fla., Trump mentioned an incident the day before in which Biden and the other G7 leaders gathered to watch a skydiving exhibition.

A video that went viral appeared to show Biden wandering off from his counterparts, only to be pulled back by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

“The new leader of Italy did a great job,” Trump said. “She said, ‘Turn around you fool.’ Now they don’t respect our country anymore.”

In fact, the video was cropped. A wider angle revealed that Biden had merely walked toward one of the skydivers who’d landed and given a congratulatory thumbs up.

Biden opted to make the most of the summit, which could be his last depending on the election. His entourage included granddaughters Maisy, Finnegan and Naomi, who testified at her father Hunter Biden’s trial in Wilmington, Del.

A potential high point of the president’s trip included a private meeting with Pope Francis on Friday. White House aides did not respond to a question about whether Biden’s granddaughters joined him.

Biden is a practicing Catholic who has voiced admiration for the pontiff, calling him “the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met.”

Faith has long been a refuge for Biden. The papal visit comes as he and his family process the news of Hunter’s conviction. Biden hasn’t disclosed what was said during the meeting.

“It went well,” he told reporters.