/Now playing in London: The Donald and Emmanuel Show

Now playing in London: The Donald and Emmanuel Show

LONDON — It was a verbal version of their infamous handshake wrestle: Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron locked in an epic blab-fest — more than 40 minutes of mansplaining, rhetorical jousting, glares, glowers, shrugs, smirks and smiles.

There were moments of consensus — especially on terrorism (as NATO’s common enemy) and Russia (maybe more of a frenemy). And there was at least one overt clash — on the question of returning foreign fighters from Syria.

The remarkable public exchange, at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., took place ahead of a NATO summit to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary — a gathering intended as a show of unity that has instead exposed deep divisions.

During their free-wheeling news conference, which lasted much longer than scheduled, the two leaders riffed on an array of points, some connected, some disjointed — on security and defense, on trade and technology, on NATO and EU-U.S. relations. Their biggest clash came on the return of ISIS fighters from Syria to Europe, with Trump accusing Macron of  delivering “one of the greatest non-answers I have ever heard.”

How much substantive impact their exchange will have is open to question. Some allies are sure to be deeply unsettled, if not outright panicked, at the prospect of two Western powers with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council finding common purpose in taking a softer line toward Moscow.

At other times, it had the feel of an improv show that would not be out of place in London’s West End.

Macron and Trump also seemed to want Turkey to answer tough questions about its military activities, including its attack on Kurdish forces that had previously aligned with the West to fight the Islamic State, and also on Ankara’s increasingly cozy relations with the Kremlin, including the purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.

But whatever the policy implications, the marathon news conference — carried live on television — was an extraordinary display by two presidents who fashion themselves as singular disruptors, neither apparently wanting to be the first to call it quits.

Although they remained seated throughout, manspreading in gilded chairs, at times they seemed to be circling each other like boxers, scouring for any vulnerability or weak spot, each intent on standing his ground without flinching or showing any fear.  The bout took place after Trump had trash-talked his counterpart earlier in the day, branding Macron’s criticism of NATO as braindead “insulting,” “very disrespectful” and “very, very nasty” — and also dissing the French president’s domestic record.

At other times, it had the feel of an improv show that would not be out of place in London’s West End.

Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg | NATO handout via Getty Images

Notably, the two leaders found common ground on the issue of NATO members’ military budgets — a victory for the American president who has spent three years harping on other allies to spend more on defense, without ever quite seeming to fully understand that the money goes to national militaries rather than into the alliance’s coffers.

Trump’s boasts about increases in spending were turbo-charged by an earlier meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who credited the U.S. president with helping achieve a cumulative increase in spending of $130 billion, which he said would increase to $400 billion by 2024.

But in his appearance with Macron, Trump put one of his signature bewildering twists on the point, crowing about U.S. economic output as the largest the world has ever seen.

“For the most part, they are all stepping up,” he said of NATO allies. “NATO has come a long way in three years, it has become very powerful, very very powerful, and it has become, I think, a much fairer [financial] statement in terms of the United States. We’re able to go down a little bit. We were paying 4 to 4.3 percent of the largest GDP ever. Nobody has ever had a GDP like we have right now. Nobody’s come close.”

Macron made clear that he recognized the U.S. contribution to NATO and respected Trump’s position on so-called burden-sharing.

“This is perfectly true that the U.S. over-invested decade after decade and it is number one by far,” Macron said. “That’s why I am a strong supporter of a stronger European component in NATO, which is exactly what we are doing.”

“When we speak about NATO it’s not just about money; we have to be respectful with our soldiers. The first burden we share, the first cost we pay, is with our soldiers’ lives” — French President Emmanuel Macron

But the French leader also refused to back down from his criticism of the alliance.

“I know that my statements created some reaction and shaked a little bit, a lot of people,” he said, speaking in English. “I do stand by them.”

Macron insisted that he was right to demand clarity from NATO and some allies, especially Turkey, over areas of clear strategic disagreement.

“When we speak about NATO it’s not just about money; we have to be respectful with our soldiers. The first burden we share, the first cost we pay, is with our soldiers’ lives,” Macron said.

“What is the objective?” Macron said of the alliance. “To protect our partners against external threats. And France will do it, and we will have full solidarity with our eastern and northern states in Europe … but the common enemy today … I am sorry to say that we don’t have the same definition of terrorism around the table. “

Turning his focus to Ankara, Macron said: “When I look at Turkey, they now are fighting against those who fought with us, shoulder to shoulder against ISIS.”

Trump and Macron are in agreement over wanting Turkey to account for its military activities and its relationship with Moscow | Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images

In their direct clash over captured ISIS fighters, Trump sarcastically offered Macron the chance to take in more of them.

“We have a tremendous amount of captured fighters, ISIS fighters over in Syria, and they are all under lock and key,” Trump said. “But many are from France, many are from Germany, many are from U.K. They are mostly from Europe.”

He turned to Macron: “Would you like some nice ISIS fighters? I could give them to you. You could take every one you want.”

Macron quickly shot back: “Let’s be serious.”

“It is true that you have current fighters coming from Europe, but this is a tiny minority of the overall problem we have in the region. And I think the number one priority, because it’s not yet finished, is to get rid of ISIS and the terrorist groups. This is our number one priority. And it is not yet done. I am sorry to say that. Yes, you still have fighters in this region — in Syria and now in Iraq, and more and more. And the whole destabilization of the region makes the situation more difficult to fix.”

It was a direct and forceful rebuke of Trump who has insisted that ISIS is defeated, and a sharp criticism of the disorderly U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria, which created chaos in the region.

“When we got al-Baghdadi, that was a great get. A lot of things are happening and France has been very helpful” — U.S. President Donald Trump

Trump was not amused, although he offered something of a backhanded compliment. “This is why he is a great politician. Because this is one of the greatest non-answers I have ever heard,” he declared.

Macron jumped back in to demand the U.S. accept responsibility, and his body language noticeably became more aggressive.

Trump acknowledged that France has taken back some fighters, and then pivoted to reiterating his claim about securing oil reserves in Syria that were being used to enrich the Islamic State. “We have taken the oil,” he said. “We have the oil. So we have total control of the oil so they are not going to be able to use that. They used that oil to really fuel up their wealth.”

He then moved on to recalling the U.S. assassination of the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “When we got al-Baghdadi, that was a great get,” Trump said, adding, “A lot of things are happening and France has been very helpful.”

Shifting away from security issues, Trump took a few minutes to reiterate his complaint that the EU was partially formed to take economic advantage of the United States and continues to do so — a point that Brussels hotly disputes.

“So I’ve exposed it. A lot of people didn’t know it. And we’re doing things about it,” Trump declared. “We have no choice, because the United States can’t continue to lose the kind of money that they have lost over the last, literally since the formation of the European Union.”

Later, Macron returned to his questions for Turkey, saying he wanted to know how Ankara could buy Russian weapons and still be properly integrated with NATO allies. “Technically it is not possible,” he said,

Trump smiled, nodded vigorously and gave an approving, “Hmmph.”

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