Will Trump’s spiraling constitutional crisis end up saving the Paris climate deal?

“Presidents who get into trouble at home look to engage other leaders on the world stage to demonstrate legitimacy.”

President Richard Nixon visits Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at his Black Sea dacha on June 30, 1974. CREDIT: AP
President Richard Nixon visits Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at his Black Sea dacha on June 30, 1974. CREDIT: AP

Will President Donald Trump’s surprise move to fire FBI director James Comey this week change the dynamics that had appeared to be leading toward a decision by the Trump administration to exit the landmark Paris climate accord?

Some say yes. “Every president in the modern era who gets into trouble at home, looks to opportunities to engage other leaders on the world stage publicly and cooperatively to demonstrate their legitimacy,” Andrew Light, senior fellow at World Resources Institute and former U.S. State Department climate official, told me.

Exiting the Paris agreement would make it all but impossible for Trump to work with other world leaders on a global stage.

Backing up a couple of weeks, before the stunning Comey decision and constantly-shifting rationale behind it, things were looking very bad for global climate action.

“Momentum has turned against the Paris climate agreement” in the White House, the Washington Post reported on May 3. Trump himself slammed Paris in an April 29 speech to supporters, promising he would end “a broken system of global plunder at American expense.” The President said he would make a “big decision” on Paris within two weeks (that is, by May 12).

We were told the decision would come after a final meeting of advisers this Tuesday. But that meeting was scrapped at the last minute, reportedly because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson couldn’t attend. The same day, the White House announced that no decision on Paris would be made until June, after the G7 meeting with other world leaders.

Of course, something else happened on Tuesday: The president fired FBI Director Comey, who had been overseeing the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Since then, Trump has made a series of statements that have only intensified the crisis. He directly contradict his spokespeople and his dismissal letter to Comey by asserting that he personally made the decision to fire Comey and the Russia investigation was a major reason. He even appeared to threaten Comey in a tweet.

Where this ends up is anybody’s guess, but for a president already at record low approval ratings, the potential fallout from the Comey firing and multiple Russia-related investigations only stands to weaken his position further. And that makes it harder for Trump to make a decision that would not merely be very unpopular here and abroad, but would actively undermine his ability to work cooperatively with other leaders on the global stage.

Presidents who get into domestic trouble seek high-profile validation from other world leaders. As one 1973 Foreign Policy article explained, “it is obvious that Nixon needs his friends in Moscow and Peking” to shore up his image during the Watergate crisis.

If America abandons the commitment the U.S. made in Paris — if we abandon over two decades of international negotiations that have given humanity its last, best hope to avoid catastrophic climate change — we will be a rogue nation, a global pariah like Putin’s Russia. And as I’ve discussed, our soft power, our ability to achieve outcomes we desire in other global negotiations, will collapse.

While Trump may think climate change is a “hoax” and that choosing to exit the Paris agreement wouldn’t be a big deal, the rest of the world takes it very seriously — a message Trump will undoubtedly hear again and again at the G7 meeting in Italy in two weeks.

Indeed, newly elected French leader Emmanuel Macron has vowed he will fight to save what was accomplished at Paris and gave Trump an earful on the subject. And Chinese President Xi Jinping told Macron this week that both countries should “protect the global governance achievements contained within the Paris Agreement on climate change.”

Trump will soon learn that to achieve any foreign-policy triumphs to counterbalance his domestic troubles, he will have to stay in Paris. And while Trump is notoriously a bad listener, he does understand the value of trying to preserve one’s brand, especially after it gets damaged.