(Reuters) May 27 at 2:57 PM
TAORMINA, Italy — Little matters more to Donald Trump, the brander-turned-American president, than imagery. Trump staffed his government out of central casting, and this past week it was time for him to audition for his role: Leader of the free world.
In Washington, Trump is mostly seen only when he chooses. At a lectern in the Rose Garden. Saluting as he boards Marine One. Behind the Resolute Desk of the Oval Office signing jumbo-sized executive orders, pushing his red button to summon a butler with Diet Coke or flashing a thumbs up from his high-backed cherry leather chair.
But a nine-day, marathon foreign trip that concluded Saturday here in Sicily has offered the first extended — and often unfiltered, thanks to the steady stream of raw camera footage provided by his host countries — look at Trump on the world stage.
Trump was both charming and boorish. He was deferential to the berobed king of Saudi Arabia and Pope Francis, yet aggressively rude to his European colleagues, brushing aside a Balkan prime minister to get to his place lining up for a photo shoot at NATO. The French newspaper Le Monde admonished Trump for “verbal and physical brutality” toward NATO allies and said he “lectured them like children.”
[Trump chastises fellow NATO members, demands they meet payment obligations]
President Trump visits the Western Wall in East Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
He strode around hulkingly. He nervously buttoned and unbuttoned his suit jacket. He sometimes seemed unsure whether to smile his toothy grin or glare, as he does when posing for portraits, so he alternated back and forth. At formal events, Trump did not always know where to go or what to do.
“What is the protocol?” he asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they walked down a red carpet at an airport arrival ceremony in Tel Aviv.
“Who knows,” Netanyahu replied. “I think they’ll just tell us where to stand.”
Trump was visibly comfortable in environs that evoked his own, like Saudi Arabia’s gilded-and-chandeliered palaces, yet appeared out of place in others. He arrived like a wrecking ball at the new NATO headquarters, a glass-and-steel behemoth that stands as a symbol of globalism and bureaucracy.
Trump’s family members took center stage. Daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, stood behind or next to the president when he delivered his speech to Muslim leaders, prayed at the Western Wall, addressed Israeli-Palestinian peace and met Pope Francis. They peeled off the trip in Rome, mid-way through.
First lady Melania Trump was omnipresent, though largely silent and emotionless. She and her husband were rarely seen exchanging words, and he sometimes walked ahead of her, almost as if she were an ornament.
But the first lady came out of her shell at solo events, handing out Dr. Seuss books and coloring with children. She was especially moved by her visit to Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome, where she read a book to and held hands with a boy who was awaiting a heart transplant. A few hours later, the first lady learned the hospital had found a donor. “Receiving that news is a moment I will never forget,” she said.
President Trump, left, and British Prime Minister Theresa May attend a ceremony at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)
A Slovenian-born former model, Melania received considerable attention for her fashion. The Saudi media fawned over her attire in Riyadh as “conservative” and “classy,” though she raised eyebrows strolling the streets of Sicily in a colorful floral jacket by the Italian designer Dolce & Gabanna that reportedly retails for $51,500.
[Trump summons Muslim nations to confront ‘Islamic terror of all kinds’]
While critics at home had predicted major gaffes, the president made none. And Trump participated in and contributed to substantive meetings on issues ranging from counterterrorism and trade to climate change and migration.
“A president becomes presidential,” said Fred Davis, a Republican media strategist. “I’m hoping this trip brings him a level of personal peace, confidence and gravitas that he can use back home.”
In Saudi Arabia, Trump’s call for cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State unquestionably pushed the issue forward, with renewed emphasis on stopping terror financing and blocking militant messaging and recruitment. Beyond any substantive accomplishment, Trump revitalized Arab leaders, particularly in the Persian Gulf, who felt they had been disrespected and ignored by President Obama.
“The United States shifted over the last eight years as a neutral player, at best, that looked the other way at Iranian aggression around the world,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under former president George W. Bush. “We are now where we should be.”
In Israel and on the West Bank, Trump repeated his pledge to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in a peace deal, although no progress was made on starting that process. He delighted Netanyahu, and likely discouraged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, by not mentioning a two-state solution as a goal.
[Amid a chillier welcome in Europe, Trump keeps pining for Saudi Arabia]
In Europe, Trump’s badgering remarks on defense spending — during a NATO ceremony memorializing the joint alliance response to the September 2001 terrorist attacks — left a bad taste. There was widespread disappointment at Trump’s failure to use the occasion to reaffirm U.S. commitment to the alliance’s joint defense pact, Article 5, although national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that “of course” Trump supports it.
Trump’s behavior, said Stefan Leifert of Germany’s public broadcaster ZDF, was “a slap in the face of all other alliance members.”
But there were also positive reactions. Germany’s Die Welt newspaper commentator Christoph B. Schiltz wrote that Trump’s “urging, his bugging and his persistence have left the alliance finally engaging more in the fight against international terrorism.”
The White House appeared to step on its own media applause lines by failing to provide timely fact sheets or copies of signed agreements Trump was touting in public as “historic” and “epic.” Press spokesmen sometimes were ill-equipped to provide basic information. And unlike virtually every president before him on similar journeys, Trump held no news conferences.
On the campaign trail, as Trump assessed Obama’s foreign policy, he fixated on an image from China that he thought symbolized America’s declining power: Obama disembarking Air Force One in Hangzhou, where he was attending a Group of 20 summit, on a metal ladder extending from the plane’s belly.
“They have pictures of other leaders who are. . .coming down with a beautiful red carpet. And Obama is coming down a metal staircase,” Trump said at a stop in Ohio. “If that were me, I would say, ‘You know what, folks, I respect you a lot but close the doors, let’s get out of here.’”
Trump did not have to make that call on this trip. At each stop, there were better than satisfactory staircases from which he could descend. At the Riyadh airport, trumpets blared, soldiers stood at attention, fighter jets flew overhead, and a spotless red carpet stretched across the tarmac. The aging King Salman, arriving in a golf cart, and aided by a cane, warmly greeted the president at the foot of the staircase.
“It was very spectacular,” Trump later told European leaders, using his characteristic hyperbole to describe his welcome in Saudi. “I don’t think there was ever anything like that. That was beyond anything anyone’s seen.”
[What scandal? In Saudi leg of foreign tour, Trump escapes ‘that Russia thing.’]
On arrival in Tel Aviv, another band, another red carpet and another head of state stood waiting. Even in Rome and Brussels, which are hardly Trump-friendly locales, the president received a grand welcome.
Trump often found himself the center of attention, both because of America’s place in the world and his singular standing as an international curiosity. But he seemed most at ease playing the undisputed leading man, such as in Riyadh, where the Saudi royal family treated him like one of their own, or in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu lifted him up every opportunity.
“It is disturbing to see how impressionable he is,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former communications adviser to Obama and Hillary Clinton. “His standard for whether or not a visit went well is how well he was treated. It is unnerving to see the leaders of other countries attempt to outdo each other in appealing to his ego as a means of bending the United States to their will.”
Trump’s confidence was less apparent at the Vatican, where he played the supplicant to Pope Francis, sitting across a wooden desk as if he were interviewing for a job.
As the trip went on, Trump seemed to be having less of a good time, perhaps in part because scandals were brewing in Washington that would await him.
[Pope welcomes Trump to the Vatican despite past disagreements]
In Brussels, where he attended a series of events celebrating NATO, Trump looked downright bored. As the king of Belgium and other leaders took turns at the lectern, Trump got fidgety, shifting in his seat, looking up to the sky and down to his feet, and crossing his arms over his chest.
The president — whom aides say has little patience for listening to other people speak — then endured a dinner session in which the leaders of all 28 NATO partners gave remarks.
And here in picturesque Taormina, at the Group of Seven summit on the rocky Sicilian coast, Trump struggled to look interested during long meetings with allies in a room decorated with the flags of other countries. As the other G-7 leaders strolled the streets of this ancient fortress town, Trump followed along in a golf cart.
A weight seemed to lift from Trump’s shoulders when he touched down by helicopter at the U.S. Naval Air Station Sigonella, on the Sicilian island, for a pep rally with military families before flying home to Washington.
The need for diplomatic niceties was over. The music playing was his campaign soundtrack. The American flag hanging behind him was several stories tall. Trump could be Trump.
The president riffed about winning — “you’re going to do a lot of winning!” — and, evoking President Reagan, said his trip would pave the way for “peace through strength.”
“That’s what we’re gonna have,” Trump said. “We’re gonna have a lot of strength and we’re gonna have a lot of peace.”
Anthony Faiola and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin, Stefano Pitrelli in Giardini Naxos, Italy, and Michael Birnbaum in London contributed to this report.
Source: Google News