Trump’s trip: Conventional images, unconventional talk
TAORMINA, Sicily — As he dashed through the Middle East and Europe, Donald Trump looked like a conventional American leader abroad. He solemnly laid a wreath at a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, had an audience with the pope at the Vatican and stood center stage with Western allies at the annual summits that dominate the diplomatic calendar.
But when Trump spoke, he sounded like anything but a typical U.S. president.
On his first overseas tour, the new president made no attempt to publicly promote democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia, instead declaring that he wasn’t there to lecture. In Israel and the West Bank, he pointedly did not back America’s long-standing support for a two-state solution to the intractable peace process. And in the heart of Europe, Trump berated NATO allies over their financial commitments and would not explicitly endorse the “one for all, all for one” defense doctrine that has been the cornerstone of trans-Atlantic security for decades.
To the White House, Trump’s first trip abroad was an embodiment of the promises he made as a candidate to put America’s interests first and break through the guardrails that have long defined U.S. foreign policy. Trump advisers repeatedly described the trip as historic and groundbreaking, including one senior official who brashly said without evidence that Trump had “united the entire Muslim world.”
Addressing U.S. troops Saturday at a Sicilian air base moments before departing for Washington, Trump himself declared: “I think we hit a home run.”
Trump boarded Air Force One without having held a single news conference on the trip — a break in presidential precedent that allowed him to avoid facing tough questions about his foreign policy or the raging controversies involving the investigations into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia. Instead, the White House hoped to let the images of Trump in statesman-like settings tell the story of his first trip abroad, and perhaps ease questions about his preparedness for the delicate world of international diplomacy.
Yet those questions are sure to persist, particularly given Trump’s remarkable lashing of NATO allies in Brussels. Standing alongside his counterparts, the president effectively accused countries who do not meet NATO’s goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product of sponging off American taxpayers. He left some allies, already nervous about Russia’s saber-rattling and Trump’s public affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin, further flummoxed when he ended his remarks without making an explicit statement of support for Article 5, the common defense clause that underpins the 68-year-old military alliance.
“The mood of Article 5, the idea that we are all in this together, is not the mood he conveyed,” said Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The mood he conveyed is you guys are a bunch of freeloaders.”
Some European leaders believe Trump can still be coaxed away from his controversial campaign positions. At the Group of 7 summit in the coastal town of Taormina, leaders launched an aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaign to get him to stay in the Paris climate accord.
While Trump emerged from the summit without a final decision on the Paris pact, he declared in a tweet Saturday that he will make a final decision next week.