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-size 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 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 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.”
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. 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, such as 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 the pope. They peeled off from the trip in Rome, midway through.
First lady Melania Trump was omnipresent, although 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 that the hospital had found a donor. “Receiving that news is a moment I will never forget,” she said.
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,” although she raised eyebrows strolling the streets of Sicily in a colorful floral jacket by the Italian designer Dolce & Gabbana that reportedly retails for $51,500.
Although critics at home had predicted major gaffes, the president made none. And Trump participated in and contributed to substantive meetings on issues 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 terrorism 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 Barack 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 probably discouraged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, by not mentioning a two-state solution as a goal.
In Europe, Trump’s badgering remarks on defense spending — during a NATO ceremony memorializing the joint alliance response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — left a bad taste. There was widespread disappointment at Trump’s failure to use the occasion to reaffirm the 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.” Media spokesmen sometimes were ill-equipped to provide basic information. And unlike virtually every president 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 Arabia. “I don’t think there was ever anything like that. That was beyond anything anyone’s seen.”
On his 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 as one of their own, or in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu lifted him up at 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 the pope, 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.
In Brussels, where he attended 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 — who 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 Ronald 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.