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Trump, pivoting to the general election, hones ‘America First’ foreign policy vision

Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks on foreign policy at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on April 27. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered his most comprehensive foreign policy speech to date Wednesday in Washington, outlining a general vision for international relations that would reconfigure American responsibilities abroad to put “America first.”

“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else,” Trump said during a speech organized by the National Interest magazine. “That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make. ‘America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.”

The real estate mogul said that a Trump administration would install a foreign policy vision that “replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace.” He said that as president he would call for summits with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and with Asian allies in the Pacific. Chief among his goals would be to update existing organizations to “confront shared problems, like terrorism and migration.”

But although Trump called for the United States to “shake the rust off of America's foreign policy,” he delivered few specific proposals, instead focusing on outlining a broad framework the rests on demanding respect for the United States abroad.

The speech came as the real estate mogul seeks to pivot to a general election battle against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Trump has faced persistent questions throughout the campaign about his grasp of foreign policy issues and his interest in policy generally. He notably drew scrutiny during a nationally televised debate in December when he appeared caught off guard by a question about the nuclear triad, a foreign policy term that refers to the country’s nuclear arsenal and its capability to fire nuclear weapons. His promises to "bomb the s---" out of the Islamic State terrorist organization and calls to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country in the name of national security have been met with hostility and alarm by critics.

Trump’s advisers have now set their sights on reforming the billionaire’s image with establishment Republicans and moderate voters who remain skeptical that he is prepared for the presidency. The candidate himself insists that he will not change his demeanor on the campaign trail, but has displayed a desire to prove that he can deliver serious, policy-oriented speeches.

On Wednesday, Trump spoke using a teleprompter in a calm, measured tone throughout the speech — a sharp contrast to his bombastic style on the campaign trail. But he stayed close to the central themes of his candidacy; namely, he blasted American leaders for, in his estimation, failing to put the country’s interests first.

Echoing comments he has made on the campaign trail, he spoke about trade deals that have hurt American workers and alliances abroad that come with little benefit to the United States. He also condemned the Obama administration for the nuclear deal it brokered with Iran last year, which he says puts the country closer to developing nuclear weapons and is an example of the country turning its back on its allies.

But Trump’s critics quickly seized on contradictions embedded in his anti-intervention worldview. While the billionaire said that the United States should seek to strengthen its relationships with foreign allies — who he said no longer trust the country to uphold its commitments — he also said allies such as Japan and South Korea must “must pay for the cost” of American assistance.

“We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony,” he said. “I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down. Under my administration, we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs."

Trump said that combating terrorism from Middle Eastern countries is one of his top priorities but blasted attempts at “nation-building” abroad — an indirect jab at former President George W. Bush — and warned that leaders who have sought to bring Democracy to the region have only plunged it into chaos. Trump said that he considers “caution and restraint” signs of strength and that military intervention will not be his first instinct as commander in chief. He also said that he believes diplomacy is a crucial principle of foreign policy.

In a preview of a general election fight against Clinton, Trump treated President Obama’s foreign policy as indistinguishable from hers, accusing the two of diminishing American power and respect broad. He also homed in on Clinton over the 2012 attacks in Libya that led to the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

“Instead of taking charge that night, Hillary Clinton decided to go home and sleep,” he said. “Our ambassador was murdered and our secretary of state misled the nation. And by the way, she was not awake to take that call at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

This story is developing. Check back for updates.