‘Circus Trump’: What that White House news conference looked like to the Finns

Wednesday’s roller coaster news conference with President Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto elicited ridicule and some concern in Finland, where many celebrated their leader on Thursday for enduring with dignity what they largely described as a Trump monologue.

Coming from a nation that ranks second on the World Press Freedom Index — compared with the United States, which ranks 48th — stunned Finnish reporters described to their readers back home a “circus” and parallel reality in the White House.

Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet offered a blunt summary of the meeting: “Niinistö’s visit was overshadowed by Circus Trump – President Niinisto asked Trump to safeguard US democracy.”

“It was a very typical Trump press conference with a foreign leader. [Trump talks] and the foreign leader is just a prop, who basically watches and tries to keep a straight face,” Jussi Hanhimaki, a Finnish researcher focusing on transatlantic relations, told The Washington Post.

During the combative news conference on Wednesday, Trump lashed out at the media, accusing journalists of undermining U.S. democracy and being “corrupt people.” Responding to questions about a July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president that is at the center of an impeachment inquiry, Trump told a reporter: “It’s a whole hoax, and you know who’s playing into the hoax? People like you and the fake news media that we have in this country.”

Meanwhile, Niinisto largely looked on in silence. Photos of his bewildered face quickly circulated online. But when Trump began responding to a question addressed to Niinisto, he interrupted: “I think the question is for me.”

In what Finnish commentators suggested was a subtle dig at Trump, Niinisto at one point also said: “Mr. President, you have here a great democracy. Keep it going on.” (Trump appeared to interpret that remark as praise.)

But to Finnish observers, said researcher Hanhimaki, it was as far as any leader would “go in terms of implying something about the U.S. president.”

Finnish observers also took issue with Trump’s treatment of the media.

“If Donald Trump shouted less, reporters might hear better,” the influential Helsingin Sanomat paper commented, in a reference to Trump’s frequent criticism of media outlets for allegedly misquoting him.

The Aamulehti paper reminded its readers that a “clash between Niinisto and the media,” akin to Trump’s confrontations with journalists, “seems like a very distant, almost impossible thought,” given Finland’s high level of press freedom.

The Ilta-Sanomat tabloid paper described Trump’s performance as “perplexing.” Meanwhile, a body language expert interviewed by the paper to decipher the tumultuous news conference described Niinisto as “relaxed compared to Trump,” as he was listening to what the Iltalehti tabloid newspaper described as “Trump’s quirky monologue” in the Oval Office, before the news conference.

Other Finnish papers similarly applauded the Finnish president for handling his “role of a bystander with honor,” as Helsingin Sanomat wrote.

Besides the possibility of getting drawn into the domestic U.S. debate over an impeachment inquiry, Niinisto faced the risk of triggering Trump’s anger over trade ties between the United States and the European Union. Niinisto’s visit to the White House on Wednesday coincided with a ruling by the World Trade Organization that Trump was allowed to impose tariffs on about $7.5 billion worth of European goods, because the E.U. was found to have illegally subsidized aircraft maker Airbus in the past. The ruling played into Trump’s narrative that the European Union’s trade policies disadvantage U.S. companies.

“Niinisto suddenly had to become the defender of the European Union, even though he was not expecting to be in that position,” Hanhimaki said.

While Trump did reiterate that “countries were ripping off the United States for many years,” his continuous attacks on Europe over trade policies largely went unnoticed, amid his fierce attacks on the media and his opponents.

“I just want to finish by saying it’s an honor to be with the president of Finland,” Trump said at the end of the news conference. “He’s done a fantastic job. Very popular, beloved over in Finland.”

And perhaps especially so after Wednesday, Finnish commentators suggested.