WASHINGTON (AP) — Weighing withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, President Donald Trump declared on Tuesday that if the Iranians “restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they’ve ever had before.”
Trump issued his warning alongside French President Emmanuel Macron in the Oval Office, where the two allies were to discuss the multinational nuclear accord, the war in Syria and other issues during a day of meetings at the White House.
“You can mark it down, if they restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they’ve ever had before,” Trump repeated.
One of Macron’s main objectives during his three-day visit to Washington is to persuade Trump to stay in the deal. Trump remains publicly undecided but reminded his French counterpart of what he sees as flaws in the agreement, which he called a “terrible deal” that fails to address ballistic missiles or Iran’s activities in Yemen or Syria.
Macron told reporters that he and Trump would look at the Iran deal “in a wider regional context,” taking into account the situation in Syria. “We have a common objective, we want to make sure there’s no escalation and no nuclear proliferation in the region. We now need to find the right path forward,” Macron said.
Domestic concerns were also near the surface for Trump. He refused to answer a reporter’s question as to whether he is considering a pardon for his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, whose office was raided by the FBI. Trump called it “a stupid question.” Cohen has not been charged in the case.
The meetings followed a pomp-filled welcome ceremony on the South Lawn. Trump said before an audience of U.S. soldiers and members of his Cabinet that the relationship he forged with Macron at the start of his presidency was a testament to the “enduring friendship that binds our two nations.” He thanked the French leader for his “steadfast partnership” in the recent missile strike in response to the chemical attack in Syria.
Macron told Trump that together the U.S. and France would defeat terrorism, curtail weapons of mass destruction in North Korea and Iran and act together on behalf of the planet, a reference to Macron’s work to revive a U.S. role in the Paris climate accord.
“History is calling us. It is urging our people to find the fortitude that has guided us in the most difficult of times,” Macron said. “France and with it, Europe, and the United States have an appointment with history.”
The social highlight of Macron’s visit, the first state visit of the Trump presidency, comes Tuesday night with a lavish state dinner at the White House. About 150 guests are expected to dine on rack of lamb and nectarine tart and enjoy an after-dinner performance by the Washington National Opera. On Monday night, the leaders took a helicopter tour of Washington landmarks and had dinner at the Potomac River home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Tuesday’s meetings follow the collaboration by the U.S., France and Britain in missile strikes in Syria earlier this month to respond to the alleged chemical weapons attack. The U.S. has 2,000 troops in Syria assisting local Arab and Kurdish fighters against IS, though Trump has resisted a deeper U.S. involvement and is eager to withdraw completely from Syria.
Macron was also expected to lobby Trump to maintain the Iran nuclear deal and reconsider his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.
Macron’s pomp-filled three-day visit to Washington underscores the importance that both sides attach to the relationship: Macron, who calls Trump often, has emerged as something of a “Trump whisperer” at a time when the American president’s relationships with other European leaders are more strained. Trump, who attaches great importance to the optics of pageantry and ceremony, chose to honor Macron with the first state visit of his administration as he woos the French president.
For all their camaraderie, Macron and Trump disagree on some fundamental issues, including the multinational nuclear deal, which is aimed at restricting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Trump, skeptical of the pact’s effectiveness, has been eager to pull out as a May 12 deadline nears. Macron says he is not satisfied with the situation in Iran and thinks the agreement is imperfect, but he has argued for the U.S. sticking with the deal on the grounds that there is not yet a “Plan B.”
Trump ended his first year in office without receiving a foreign leader on a state visit, the first president in nearly 100 years to fail to do so. He was Macron’s guest last July at the annual Bastille Day military parade in the center of Paris. Macron and his wife also took Trump and first lady Melania Trump on a tour of Napoleon’s tomb and whisked them up in the Eiffel Tower for dinner overlooking the City of Light.
Macron was welcomed back to the White House on Tuesday with a traditional arrival ceremony featuring nearly 500 members of the U.S. military and a booming 21-gun salute. He was also attending a State Department lunch hosted by Vice President Mike Pence.
The state dinner honoring Macron will be served in the State Dining Room, which will feature more than 2,500 stems of white sweet pea flowers and nearly 1,000 stems of white lilac. Separately, more than 1,200 branches of cherry blossoms will adorn the majestic Cross Hall.
The first lady opted for a cream-and-gold color scheme, and will use a mix of china services from the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
State dinner tickets are highly sought after by Washington’s political and business elite. A few of those expected to attend: Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund and a former top French government official; House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Mike Pompeo, Trump’s choice to be the next secretary of state.
In a break with tradition, Trump has invited no congressional Democrats or journalists, said a White House official who was not authorized to discuss the arrangements publicly. But some Democrats did make the cut, including Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, whose office confirmed his attendance.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Jonathan Lemire contributed.