Despite the tone of some of the cable news coverage I’ve been seeing this morning, there was nothing particularly unsettling about the meeting between President Donald Trump and Pope Francis this morning. All in all it seems to have been the usual, choreographed bit of performance art which characterizes most Papal meetings with heads of state. But unlike Trump’s previous stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel, it’s hard to deny that the temperature seemed a bit “cooler” for this discussion.
Leading up to the meeting the press was already reminding everyone of the less than loving relationship between Trump and the Pope during the campaign and noting their many differences in policy. But as this pool report from Reuters described it, both men carried out their duties in a polite and respectful fashion.
Pope Francis urged U.S. President Donald Trump to be a peacemaker at their highly anticipated first meeting on Wednesday, and Trump promised he would not forget the pontiff’s message.
Under clear blue skies, Trump, who exchanged sharp words with the pope during the U.S. election campaign last year, received a tribute from the Swiss Guard in a Vatican courtyard when he arrived.
Trump entered a small elevator taking him to the third floor of the Apostolic Palace and, after a long ceremonial walk past frescoed corridors, shook the pope’s hand at the entrance to the private study, which the frugal pontiff uses only for official occasions.
Before the door of the wood-lined elevator closed, a Vatican protocol official was heard quipping to the president that it was not “like Trump Tower in New York”.
Francis smiled faintly as he greeted Trump outside the study and was not as outgoing as he sometimes is with visiting heads of state. Trump, seeming subdued, said “it is a great honor”.
Most of the coverage matches up with the brief video clips we’re seeing so far. Trump is regularly characterized as seeming more “subdued” than during his previous stops on this trip and his remarks were shorter and less colorful. He did tell reporters that they had “a fantastic meeting” and spoke of what an honor it was, but that was about it. For his part, the Pontiff was gracious, but reporters noted that during the photo op with the President he wasn’t engaging in as much of the usual chit chat while they waited and he generally wasn’t smiling. It was also noted that Trump’s meeting ran for thirty minutes, nearly a half hour less than Barack Obama had with him. But that could also be because this stop was added in to the trip agenda later than the others and the Pope was already obligated to get to his normal Wednesday services.
Perhaps we can discern a bit more about the meeting from the gifts that they exchanged. In what seems a rather pointed indicator, the Pope gave Trump bound copies of two of his encyclical letters. They were the 2017 message on peace, “Nonviolence – A Style of Politics for Peace,” and his 2015 letter on the need to protect the world from climate change. Nothing too subtle about that I suppose.
Trump gave the Pontiff a bound, first edition set of the works of Martin Luther King. Was there a message for the Pope there or was it just a recognition of progress and the civil rights era? Tough to say. There were some other gifts exchanged as well, but those were the ones that really stood out to me in terms of messaging and the current state of relations between the White House and the Vatican. And, of course, Trump’s gifts were significantly more appropriate than an iPod loaded with swinging blues classics.
All in all, the visit can’t be called a failure in any regard. And let’s face it.. it’s not the Christians of the world that Trump needs to win over in terms of attempting to build a coalition to spread peace and stop terrorism. But this probably won’t be recorded as the biggest success of this trip either. While the Pope certainly wasn’t rude or insulting, he wasn’t exactly bubbling over with graciousness and enthusiasm either.