On Friday, President Trump held a press conference with British prime minister Theresa May. It was his first presidential meeting with a foreign leader, and the Trump we saw today was very different from the Trump we have seen before.
Today’s Trump was more cautious, calm, and diplomatic than usual. I have five specific takeaways.
1. We found out that Trump has given Prime Minister May a clear commitment on NATO. In a message aimed at the assembled British media (and Vladimir Putin), May started the conference by saying that Trump had agreed that NATO was instrumental to global security. But May added an addendum: She pushed NATO members to spend more on defense. This pressure on France, Germany, Italy etc., is a crucial part of May’s effort to encourage Trump to commit to NATO. I believe the president should take advantage of this opportunity to strengthen the alliance and get a better deal for the American people.
2. Trump signaled that he is listening to his intelligence briefers. This was evident when he stated that he had hoped for good relations with most nations, but now expects the opposite. That changed perception had to come from somewhere. To me it seems credible that intelligence reporting influenced it. And Trump’s positive remarks towards Mexico did not correlate with the current wall showdown. I suspect Trump is now recognizing that when human intelligence sources, and signal intelligence sources, and many other intelligence sources in the presidential daily brief all show the same thing . . . that thing might be true. Trump is growing aware that many foreign adversaries believe he is ignorant and malleable. Understandably that aggravates him. But as time goes on, and Trump learns to trust those in the intelligence community to serve him objectively, he will find himself empowered. He will be able to play those who seek to play him.
3. Trump showed he can defer to those he believes know better. This was proved when the president stated that torture works but added that Defense Secretary Mattis opposes torture and so the U.S. government will avoid it. His words here were quite remarkable. After all, Donald Trump is hardly known as a man who enjoys being challenged. And yet, on this key concern, he openly accepted that Mattis knows better than he does. It suggests Trump might take his CEO experience to his office — namely, the CEO quality of knowing when someone else knows better. It bodes well for Trump’s ability to take advice in the future. On, for example, Russia . . .
4. Trump was diplomatic. While this might have seemed predictable, many analysts had suggested Trump would be unable to check his impulses to go off on a tangent and engage in unyielding ad hominem attacks. But he did so successfully. We saw a president who recognizes that foreign relations are ill suited for outbursts and that words now carry great consequence. Trump’s only freak-out, and it was a mild one, came when a British reporter accused him of changing his mind on occasion.
We saw a president who recognizes that foreign relations are ill suited for outbursts and that words now carry great consequence.
5. We saw where the U.S. and the U.K. agree and disagree. One important point of agreement is Islamist extremism. In a clear rebuke to Trump’s predecessor, Theresa May actually used the term ‘‘Islamist extremism.” And she noted that America and Britain have shared interests in confronting the threat that menaces them both.
The disagreement, however, came on Russia. Putin, May said, had to comply with diplomatic agreements pertaining to Ukraine if he was to receive sanctions relief. In contrast, President Trump said only that it was early to talk about sanctions. One caveat here. The U.K. cannot claim saintly virtue in opposing Putin. As I’ve explained, members of Russian organized crime and Putin-wannabe oligarchs have long had a very welcome home for their money in London. To check Putin, that safe haven must end.
Ultimately, today, Trump showed that he recognizes his responsibilities. He needs good allies because significant foreign-policy challenges lurk ahead in the coming weeks. Offering genuine support, Theresa May made a good impression on the new president. In turn, Trump was cordial and confident. One might even say, statesmanlike. It was, in short, a good start.