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Analysis: For Trump, a forgiving road trip

Updated May 27, 2017 - 8:53 pm

TAORMINA, Sicily — President Donald Trump may find Washington a hostile home lurking with political foes who want payback for his harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail. Funny thing, though, on his first foreign trip as president, the onetime isolationist found forgiveness and bonhomie from leaders and nations he trolled during the 2016 campaign.

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman rolled out a red carpet for Trump and hosted meetings with Muslim and Arab leaders. In Israel, Trump had positive talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The Vatican described Trump’s audience with Pope Francis as “cordial.”

In politics, leaders often have to share a stage and a smile with former opponents. Partisans have policy differences, then they find common cause. But in 2016, Trump went beyond standard campaign rhetoric when he criticized foreign leaders.

He accused the Saudis of blowing up the World Trade Center in New York. He supported a “total and complete shutdown” on allowing Muslims to enter the United States. Abbas and the Saudi royal family are Muslims. As a candidate, Trump tweeted that the pontiff was “disgraceful” for questioning his faith.

In Washington, there’s no getting over 2016. Democrats in Congress are loath to appear publicly with Trump. After spending the last eight years denouncing Republican obstructionism, they’ve come up with a new word — “resistance” — for the same behavior, which they now find laudable.

They can’t and won’t get over 2016 while the Saudi King, Palestinian leader and Catholic Pope can.

Then again, Saudi Arabia and Israel were pretty peeved at President Barack Obama’s role in passing the nuclear deal with Iran. Middle Eastern leaders did not appreciate Obama’s role in easing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of power. They appreciate that Trump’s “America First” rhetoric means not pushing Middle Eastern leaders to the breaking point.

As Trump put it when he spoke to Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh, “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

The pope had the least to lose from taking on Trump and the least to win from reaching out to the president. The pontiff sees immigration as a moral issue, and he was not afraid to say so last year.

“I honestly don’t think Francis gives a hoot about the benefit” of a visit, observed Austin Ruse, Catholic author and president of C-Fam, a family research institute, and a member of Trump’s Council of Catholic Advisers.

Trump’s audience with the pope was cordial, Ruse believes, because the president charmed him.

Trump certainly didn’t charm NATO leaders in Brussels. At a dedication for a memorial of 9/11 and NATO’s Article 5, which guarantees mutual defense, Trump hectored member nations for failing to contribute their “fair share” of NATO’s defense. That lecture at least could not be considered a surprise.

Yet then, after fanning expectations that he would endorse Article 5 explicitly, Trump failed to do so. He chose to treat NATO like a freeloader even though the alliance is sending NATO troops to Iraq and likely will increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

It is instructive to consider the reaction of NATO leaders. They didn’t return his criticism with cute sound bites a la House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

After the minisummit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Trump “strongly stated his commitment” to NATO and “it’s not possible to be committed to NATO without being committed to Article 5.”

On Saturday, McMaster told reporters that “of course” Trump supports the key NATO provision, for what that is worth.

The takeaway from Trump’s trip is that America is the superpower. With Obama and his magical thinking gone, and a president willing to flex some muscle in his place, Europe is responding.

Trump’s refusal to join the rest of the G7 on climate change Saturday was met with willingness to keep trying to bring him onboard.

Before the trip, foreign policy graybeard Robert Gates, defense secretary under President George W. Bush and Obama, said on “Face the Nation,” American foreign policy needs “disruption.” As Trump arrives back in his home in Washington, he can tell his critics the world agrees.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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