Donald Trump said in a foreign policy speech delivered Wednesday that “America first” would be the “major and overriding theme” of his presidential administration, and he dismissed globalism as a “false song” that has helped bring America to its knees in the world.
Trump charged President Obama with direct responsibility for chaos in the Middle East, China’s rise and Russia’s hostility, along with a string of international “humiliations” that undercut respect for U.S. power. Offering few specifics, he said that as president he would reward friends, punish enemies — including “very, very quickly” destroying the Islamic State — and reexamine whether international institutions and alliances served U.S. interests.
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else,” Trump told about 100 invited guests and an equal number of journalists who attended the event hosted by the National Interest magazine at a Washington hotel.
The morning after he swept five Republican primaries in his steamrolling quest for the GOP nomination, Trump was somewhat subdued, reading his 40-minute address from a teleprompter without his usual bombast and with relatively few off-script interjections. A senior campaign official said that Trump had largely rewritten a draft prepared by staffers from ideas he has expressed during the campaign.
While he struck familiar themes of protectionism, nationalism and promises to correct “a reckless, rudderless and aimless foreign policy,” many of Trump’s more incendiary views were absent. There was no mention of Mexico, let alone the construction of a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants. Although he spoke vaguely of a “pause for reassessment” of immigration policy overall, he did not repeat his pledge to stop all Muslims from entering the country or his acquiescence to the spread of nuclear weapons.
Most of the interruptions for applause, a frequent occurrence at Trump’s campaign speeches — came from a single row of seats filled with his own entourage and representatives of groups working to support him.
The senior campaign official — who requested anonymity to keep the spotlight centered on Trump, said those positions were “politics, not policy,” and that the goal of the speech was “to give his vision, in his words.”
Trump’s address, the first of what his campaign has said will be a number of formal policy speeches, came as the real-estate mogul seeks to pivot to a general-election battle against former Obama secretary of state Hillary Clinton. He 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 term that refers to the country’s land, sea and air nuclear weapons delivery capabilities.
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.
“It was pretty well done,” said one former national-security official from previous Republican administrations who, while speaking on condition of anonymity as a Trump consultant, said the speech was in the tradition of “Reagan, Dole and Cheney.”
Trump had initially proposed delivering the speech from a balcony at his 800-acre Trump National Golf Club along the Potomac in Sterling, Va.
GOP critics of the speech described it as contradictory and lacking specifics. “Not sure who is advising Trump on foreign policy, but I can understand why he’s not revealing their names,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who dropped out of contention for the Republican nomination in December, said via Twitter.
Another dropout from the GOP race, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who attended the address, said that he “absolutely agreed with a lot” of what Trump said, and “have said it myself.”
“But I noticed a lot of things that seemed to contradict each other,” Gilmore said. “He talks about pulling back and confronting our allies” with their failure to back U.S. policies and pay for their own defense, “as well as supporting them. I’m not sure how these pieces all fit together.”
In one of the more puzzling statements, not included in prepared remarks posted on his campaign website before he spoke, Trump ruminated near the end of his speech about “too much destruction out there, too many destructive weapons. The power of weaponry,” he said, “is the single biggest problem that we have today in the world.”
Earlier, he said that under Obama, “our nuclear weapons arsenal, our ultimate deterrent.” had been allowed “to atrophy and is desperately in need of modernization.” He criticized shrinkage in the number of U.S. active-duty military forces, and the age and decreasing size of both the Navy and the Air Force.
“Our military is depleted, and we’re asking our generals and military leaders to worry about global warming,” Trump said. “We will spend what we need to rebuild our military. . . . We will develop, build and purchase the best equipment known to mankind.”
He offered no specifics on how he would pay for those expansions, beyond repeating his campaign promises to improve the economy by revitalizing American manufacturing and cutting off those trading partners, chiefly China, that refuse to rectify the U.S. trade deficit.
Trump did not mention Russian President Vladimir Putin, of whom he has spoken with admiration in the past, but said that improved relations with Russia was “absolutely possible.”
“Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable,” he said. “I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great — not good — great, for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table.” With the United States at loggerheads with Russia over the Ukraine, Syria and a number of other issues, he did not expand on what the proposed “deal” would be about.
Trump said that “we’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.” He warned that leaders who have sought to bring democracy to countries uninterested in it have only plunged into chaos.
“Instead of trying to spread universal values that not everybody shares or want,” he said, positive reforms should be spread by “strengthening and promoting Western civilization and its accomplishment.” At the same time, Trump said, “we will never again enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.”
“After I’m elected president,” he said, “I will also call for a summit with our NATO allies and a separate summit with our Asian allies” to discuss “a rebalancing of financial commitments” and priorities. If they are not prepared to pay U.S. costs for defending them, Trump said, “the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”
A number of Republican foreign policy experts have said they would not work for a Trump administration. But Trump indicated that was fine with him.
“My goal is to establish a foreign policy that will endure for several generations,” he said. “That’s why I also look and have to look for talented experts and with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.”
“We have to look to new people,” he said, “because many of the old people frankly don’t know what they’re doing.”