A (mostly) presidential Trump on display while abroad
WASHINGTON — Candidate Donald Trump demanded a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration and blamed 9/11 on Saudi Arabia. He labeled the pope “disgraceful,” tweeted an anti-Semitic image, and called Brussels “a hellhole.”
But during the first few stops of his nine-day foreign trip, which concludes Saturday, Trump has offered a glimpse of what a more diplomatic version of himself would look like. Now Saudi Arabia is a “magnificent” country. He donned a yarmulke and prayed at the Western Wall. Trump finds Pope Francis to be “terrific.”
The president’s less diplomatic side didn’t surface until Brussels where, in short order, he verbally cudgeled NATO allies for not doing their share, chewed out Germany on trade, and appeared to shove aside the prime minister from Montenegro — the newest member of the alliance — to get to the front row for a group photo.
The public has come to know that version of Trump. The other Trump, with the harshest of his rhetoric sanded down, is newer to the public. But his days overseas revealed that he’s capable of avoiding major gaffes and of sticking, for the most part, to the script.
Trump has modulated some of his more extreme positions, and demonstrated that he can be just as flexible in retreating from campaign promises on foreign policy as he has been on the domestic front.
This raises the question: To learn how to be a president, or least bear himself like one, did Trump have to leave the United States?
“When Donald Trump acts like a normal president, I find that soothing,” said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
He said that Trump’s softer rhetoric may be a natural byproduct of learning more about the world. “Every president comes into office saying, ‘90 percent of my predecessor’s foreign policy was idiotic,’ ” said Drezner. “And it turns out that 80 percent of American foreign policy is there for a reason and 20 percent of it should change.”
Part of the reason Trump seems to be having more success while abroad is that he’s largely avoided the unscripted moments that so often bring trouble.
“We’ve had a sustained period where he has been very disciplined,” observed Heather Conley, a former senior State Department official who is now at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “It’s a very different approach for the president.”
She noted that Trump has not been sending erratic tweets and has mostly avoided the press — which is atypical for a US president abroad. But the effect has been curtailing the off-the-cuff comments Trump is known for that have often worked against achievement of his policy goals.
“These pictures [of Trump abroad] are just great to watch,” Conley said. “What we’re seeing is when you follow a script, and you do what you agreed to do, leaders know what is going to happen and you can have successes.”
The images that generated discussion at home were far from the kind that could ruin a trip: a strange image of him clutching a glowing orb along with Saudi leaders, the dismissive nudge to the Montenegrin prime minister, and the footage of his wife seeming to flick his hand away when he sought to hold hers in Israel.
One of his few miscues came in Jerusalem on Monday just moments before a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when Trump addressed questions about whether he improperly shared Israeli-gathered secrets with the Russians during a meeting in the Oval Office.
“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel, never mentioned during that conversation. They’re all saying I did,” Trump said to reporters. “So you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”
The comments fueled unflattering responses — news reports never said he directly identified Israel — but Trump regained his balance. And for much of the trip, Trump has navigated fairly tight policy U-turns with skill.
During Trump’s swing through Israel, many foreign policy observers watched to see if he would make good on one of his campaign promises: moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he called the “eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
The move would cause outrage in the Muslim world, a concern that the White House appears to be weighing more carefully. “We don’t think it would be wise to do it at the time,” a White House official said during the trip.
A striking shift in tone came during Trump’s maiden speech abroad, an address he gave in Saudi Arabia that focused on combatting terrorism.
“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump said, sounding surprisingly similar to his predecessor Barack Obama. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions.”
He avoided the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” — even though in the past he has been critical of Obama and others who avoided the phrase as a needless provocation, a slur on Islam. His prepared remarks referred instead to “Islamist extremism,” which sounds more like condemnation of an ideology, not a religion (he slipped a few times by saying “Islamic extremism” and “Islamic terror,” which a senior White House official attributed to fatigue.
Even his wife’s wardrobe signaled a change: She didn’t cover her head in front of the Saudis. Foreign women aren’t required to do so, but Trump had been critical of Michelle Obama for failing to honor the local tradition.
Trump’s more accommodating posture in Saudi Arabia and Israel was noted with extreme displeasure by representatives of the alt-right, a class of conservatives, some of whom espouse racist and white nationalist views. The president had significant support from that wing during the campaign.
“We have a president that is under hostage, who is under control by the Zionists,” David Duke said on his radio show Wednesday. The former Ku Klux Klan leader, and onetime Trump endorser, then launched into an anti-Semitic screed about Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who helped plan the trip and is Jewish.
Even though the tone was new, the trip did not serve to shape anything like a cohesive Trump Doctrine on foreign policy — aside from the sense that much is up for negotiation and that “America First” no longer quite describes it. One result of that could be that other regions of the world will work harder to develop their own unified agendas.
“It is an opportunity for Europeans to demonstrate they can be cohesive with or without the United States,” said Boris Toucas, a French visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He noted Trump’s silence on whether the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions to curb climate change, as an issue where there’s room for supporters to make their case.
“He’s still reflecting on it,” Toucas said. “That means there is room for negotiation. The president is now maybe less vocal and takes more time to reflect on things.”
Trump’s rhetoric on NATO, a favorite punching bag during the campaign, was probably modified the least during the trip. In Brussels Thursday, he sternly lectured assembled alliance leaders.
“NATO members must finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations,” Trump said, as many of them stood uncomfortably listening. The speech included a cutting remark about the gleaming building where he was giving his address.
“I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost. I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful,” Trump said, of the building that cost $1.2 billion. His intent was plainly to contrast its splendor to the alliance’s parsimony on defense.
European observers had hoped for a more concrete commitment to the mutual defense clause at the center of the treaty — that an attack on one member state is an attack on all. Trump’s staff tried to assuage allies.
It’s unclear how long the new more politic version of Trump will last. He returns to a Washington roiling with investigations and where the Senate Intelligence Committee gained broad powers to issue subpoenas for its investigation of Trump’s campaign’s ties to Russia. And Kushner was revealed as a potential subject of the inquiry while Trump was away.
Also in this interval, Trump’s team has been filling out a team of lawyers to defend him. That could mean the diplomatic sheen he wore over the past week will soon be gone.