SIGONELLA, Italy – President Donald Trump came overseas, he saw and he conquered – at least in his own mind, as he declared success Saturday to hundreds of U.S. service members before heading home from his first foreign trip.
“I think we hit a home run no matter where we are,” Trump said in a speech at the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily.
Trump did open and close his 25-minutes of remarks thanking the uniformed personnel and their families for their service on the first day of the Memorial Day weekend.
“A very proud nation salutes you,” he said. “You are the metal spine forged out of the fire of American strength.”
But nearly half of that speech was spent recounting his perceived accomplishments, from concluding an arms deal with Saudi Arabia (it had been years in the making) to forcing NATO allies to increase how much they spend on defense (a commitment they agreed to in 2014, under former President Barack Obama).
Of the arms sales, he said he had agreed to “massive economic development deals, the likes of which there has never been, that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States building the equipment that has just been ordered by Saudi Arabia.”
And on NATO: “Other nations must pay more!”
Within minutes of wrapping up his speech in an aircraft hangar, he climbed aboard Air Force One and was quickly airborne for the 10-hour flight home, his nine-day inaugural foreign trip done.
For Trump, the best days of his time abroad may have been the first ones, in Saudi Arabia where King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman feted him like a conquering hero. Knowing the president’s receptivity to flattery, the Saudis pulled out all the stops and gave Trump a red-carpet welcome, a horse-borne escort on his trip to the royal palace and a lavish party that included a traditional sword dance.
For his part, Trump announced the completion of a massive deal to sell Saudi Arabia U.S. weapons, and in his remarks made it plain that he wasn’t interested so much in human rights in the region so long as leaders joined the U.S.-led fight against Islamist terrorism. It was a message the region’s autocratic leaders were pleased to hear following eight years of criticism on the issue from Obama.
His next stop, in Jerusalem, was still friendly territory for him. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a chilly relationship with Obama, welcomed Trump as a true friend to Israel.
Things started going downhill for Trump, though, in Rome. For the first time, there were protests against him, albeit not very large, thanks to the mayor whose party leader, Beppe Grillo, admires Trump. And although the White House got the Vatican audience it wanted, Pope Francis’ dour facial expressions likely were not the images it had hoped for.
Those first three stops, though, was largely ceremonial – added relatively late as a way to emphasize Trump’s respect for the three Abrahamic religions. It was the long-scheduled meetings in Brussels, Belgium, and Taormina, Italy, where both Trump’s message and delivery left raw feelings.
At the unveiling of a memorial at NATO headquarters to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Trump used the occasion to scorch America’s military allies for failing to spend as much on defense in recent years as Trump would have wanted. In his view, their failure to do so unfairly burdened U.S. taxpayers – an opinion other NATO members do not share, a sentiment made clear by their facial expressions as he spoke.
(Trump then generated unflattering headlines for himself by shoving aside the leader of Montenegro, NATO’s newest member, so he could take his assigned spot for a group photo, and, later, by reportedly calling Germany “bad” for selling so many cars in the United States.)
Finally, at the G-7 meeting of the world’s largest democratically run economies, Trump would not commit to honor the United States’ participation in the 2015 agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to slow climate change, which the other six nations badly wanted the world’s largest economy to remain part of. Even as Trump deferred a decision on that point, he continued complaints that the United States is running trade deficits with European nations.
“The president does not like having large trade deficits,” top economic adviser Gary Cohn said at a news conference at the close of the summit.
Trump personally did not participate in any news conferences at all during the trip, and only took the occasional shouted question from reporters. The decision may have been based on the continued stream of news reports from Washington during his overseas jaunt about the ongoing FBI investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia.
Both Cohn and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster refused to take questions about the latest Russia-related news report alleging Trump son-in-law and top aide Jared Kushner had discussed setting up a secret back channel with Russia during the transition period.