As details emerged from the indictment charging former President Donald J. Trump with mishandling classified documents, global reaction ranged from strategic silence to unbridled outrage, with room in between for world-weary shrugs, wild conspiracy theories and ominous predictions of American decline.
China’s propaganda machine, which would normally leap on a U.S. scandal, stayed quiet. Russian commentators called the charges a fake production of the “deep state.” And among American allies in Asia and Europe, there were concerns that the episode hurt not just the former president, but also the United States by highlighting that security secrets were not safe in America’s hands, and that the country’s disorienting, partisan fever has yet to break.
“The case shows once again that Donald Trump belongs behind bars, not in the White House,” Ralf Stegner, a German Social Democrat who sits on the German intelligence oversight committee, said in a text message, adding: “This man is a threat to security and democracy in the U.S. and around the world.”
The world, it seems, is once again gawking at the messiness of the United States and calculating the costs and opportunities of the latest Trump revelations transfixing and dividing the country. It is a moment that feels familiar yet not quite the same.
When Mr. Trump was president, his moods and travails through two impeachments carried the weight of American power, and officials in distant capitals spent their days calculating the effect of his erratic, transactional approach to governing a hyper-polarized superpower.
Out of office, his troubles mean less. His indictment has mostly been a reminder of what came before — and what might return as he runs for office again. But the world now is more experienced, knowing that Mr. Trump’s legal woes are far from over.
Many countries chose silence in public and eye rolls in private. “Save your energy, because there will be other things to react to,” said Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, summing up how many in Southeast Asia in particular are viewing Mr. Trump’s latest case.
Nonetheless, that did not mean that the episode would pass unnoticed — or fail to be exploited by other nations trying to tilt the world away from American leadership.
For China, publicly ignoring Mr. Trump’s indictment may have reflected deeper, long-term goals. The country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, and the former president ended 2020 as bitter rivals in the middle of a tariff battle and rancor over the source of the coronavirus, but before that, they were often praising each other and negotiating.
Some analysts believe that Beijing might welcome the return of Mr. Trump to office because he was less committed to traditional alliances — and democracy — and might see value in a U.S.-China deal of some kind. Perhaps that would mean pulling back from support for Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing sees as its own territory, in exchange for some kind of big economic win.
“If you’re China, Trump’s transactionalism is appealing because that means he has the potential to be a friend, to be co-opted,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official and a fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
In Russia, some commentators were open in their support for Mr. Trump.
Sergei A. Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst in Russia, wrote on his channel on the Telegram messaging app that the accusations against Mr. Trump were fake and could be made against 100 percent of high-ranking civil servants. Echoing false claims by the former president, he said that the 2020 presidential election had been rigged and that Mr. Trump had been the real winner. The Russian analyst called the indictment an attempt to stop the former president from retaking the White House.
Nikolai Starikov, a pro-Kremlin commentator on the Russian state news television talk show “60 Minutes,” likewise characterized the cases against Mr. Trump as a pressure campaign to push him out of the 2024 race, saying he had angered the “deep state” and political establishment by refusing to admit defeat in an election. He said President Biden needed to win re-election because otherwise he would be prosecuted himself.
In Europe, given its deepening alliance with the United States in support of Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s full-scale invasion, the accusations of mishandling of classified information by the former president were deeply worrisome. The bloc is anxiously following the political drama unfolding across the Atlantic, questioning whether it would help or hurt the former president’s campaign, and European security.
“This is coming after the leak of the so-called Discord documents” — a batch of classified documents that surfaced on social media sites — “and all the concerns about what may have been leaked about the Ukrainian offensive,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, a Brussels-based senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund. “There’s a degree of Europeans thinking, is Trump someone we can rely on for our own security?”
He added that “Trump seems to be politically quite happy about being able to be the victim and the martyr, because it does appear to energize his base,” arguing that with a Republican Party seemingly wedded to such a leader, “Europe needs to take care much more of its own security.”
Many news media outlets were even more merciless in their critiques of the former president.
“Neglect, narcissistic desire for possession, lying, concealment. But above all, absolute disregard for national security,” an article in the French daily Le Monde declared in its coverage.
A commentary piece in Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argued that, while the legal grounds for the indictment may be sound, the ensuing “political mudslinging” meant that no final result would be widely accepted in the country’s highly polarized environment.
“America’s reconciliation, that many had hoped, will not happen,” the column read.
Some officials and analysts mainly sought to put the indictment in context — seeing it as both a reflection of how the American experiment works, and a challenge to that experiment. Peter Tesch, a former Australian defense official and ambassador to Russia, said the case, along with Mr. Trump’s combative response and his continuing campaign for office, all pointed to the “wild mutations” that the American political system occasionally produces.
“He’s like a weighted Russian doll; he gets knocked over and he just rolls back upright again,” Mr. Tesch said. But he added that this was not a moment for false equivalence between democracy and autocracy.
“Convicted or not, he’s been charged,” he said. “That testifies to the strength and resilience of U.S. institutions — and democracy, where everyone is accountable before the law.”
For others, it was less clear that the United States was proving its mettle.
Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, suggested that the indictment would further damage the reliability of American diplomacy abroad, while revealing the deep flaws of Mr. Trump as a leader.
He said Mr. Trump’s indictment presented the United States with a challenge: how to restore respectability to its political system while preventing a cycle of past presidents facing criminal charges under new presidents amid outcries of political revenge — a pattern that has bedeviled countries like South Korea.
“This will be a barometer moment for the Americans: whether they will decline to become a political Third World nation, or will re-establish themselves as a liberal democracy,” he said.
One version of that possible future came in a tweet from an unabashed Trump supporter.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who in his years in power has adroitly used the levers of government power to erode democratic norms in pursuit of what he calls “illiberal democracy,” did not hesitate to take a side. “Your fight is a good fight @realDonaldTrump,” he wrote on Twitter. “Never give up!”
Reporting was contributed by Choe Sang-Hun, Paul Sonne, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Christopher F. Schuetze.
Damien Cave is the bureau chief in Sydney, Australia. He previously reported from Mexico City, Havana, Beirut and Baghdad. Since joining The Times in 2004, he has also been a deputy National editor, Miami bureau chief and a Metro reporter. @damiencave
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