In calls and statements on his first two full days in office, President Trump moved to flesh out what he has described as his “America first” foreign policy, with at least symbolic steps toward goals he expressed during his campaign.
Trump invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit him at the White House in early February, during a brief telephone call Sunday that Trump described as “very nice.”
A White House statement said the two agreed to consult closely on regional issues, “including the threats posed by Iran.” It said Trump emphasized the close relationship between the two countries, promised to work toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, and stressed that countering the Islamic State “and other radical Islamic terrorist groups” will be an administration priority.
Netanyahu, in a statement released by his office, called the conversation “very warm.” He said he had “expressed his desire to work closely” with the administration, “with no daylight between” the two countries.
Trump has not yet made contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, of whom he has spoken admiringly, and who U.S. intelligence said covertly tried to tilt the presidential election in Trump’s direction.
A Kremlin spokesman said Saturday that Putin was ready, but that a meeting between them would probably happen in months, not weeks. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the BBC that it would be “a big mistake” to think that U.S.-Russian relations under Trump would be free from controversy.
Speaking at the White House ceremony to swear in his senior staff, Trump said that he would meet soon with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, both of whom he spoke with by telephone on Saturday. A Mexico meeting may come as early as the end of this month, White House officials said.
“We’re going to start renegotiating about NAFTA and immigration and security on the border,” Trump said. “Mexico has been terrific . . . I think we’re going to have a very good result.” NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has said is unfair to the United States; both Trudeau and Peña Nieto have said they are willing to discuss its terms.
Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader, however, will come Friday, when he receives British Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House.
In a statement Sunday, May’s government said the meeting would “primarily be an opportunity to get to know one another and to establish the basis for a productive working relationship.” The statement said May would also address a weekend meeting of Republican lawmakers that Trump is scheduled to attend.
May, who is struggling to implement her country’s vote to leave the European Union, is seeking a strong bilateral trade relationship with the United States as she prepares for E.U. negotiations.
Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu tweeted that “Stopping the Iranian threat, and the threat reflected in the bad nuclear agreement with Iran, continues to be a supreme goal of Israel.”
Netanyahu also met with his security cabinet on Sunday, telling members that he would allow continued construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, according to Israeli media accounts.
Those settlements are considered illegal by most of the world. The Obama administration called them “illegitimate” and “obstacles to peace.” Israel disputed this.
On Sunday, Jerusalem’s construction committee approved 566 housing units in East Jerusalem settlements.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said that Trump was a “true friend” to Israel, referring to a reported statement by Trump press secretary Sean Spicer that the administration was at the “very beginning stages” of discussing a move of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“We will offer them all the assistance necessary,” Barkat said in a statement. “The U.S. has sent a message to the world that it recognizes Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel.”
No country in the world has its Israel embassy in Jerusalem, which is also claimed by the Palestinians as their capital. While Congress long ago passed a resolution ordering the move, both Republican and Democratic presidents have repeatedly waived the order on national security grounds.
Trump pledged during his campaign to move the embassy, and his designated ambassador to Israel, New York bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, has called the move a “big priority” for the new administration.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with Jordanian King Abdullah II on Sunday to discuss what to do if Trump follows through. Jordan plays an important role in Jerusalem as a caretaker of the holy Muslim sites on the eastern side of the city.
Abbas said in a statement after his meeting with the king that the Palestinians want the Trump administration to stop talks about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and to “get involved” in conducting serious political negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel.
In his confirmation hearing, secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson called Israel “our most important ally in the region,” and said that former president Barack Obama had undermined Israeli security, but did not directly address the embassy question.
Tillerson’s confirmation was all but assured on Sunday, when a pair of Republican senators who had expressed concerns about him announced that they will vote to confirm him. Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), two traditional GOP hawks who have voiced skepticism about Tillerson’s ties to Russia, released a joint statement saying that after much thought, they have decided to back him.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to vote Monday afternoon on Tillerson. Regardless of the outcome, his nomination will move to the full Senate floor for a vote, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last week.
Although much of the drama about Tillerson’s fate has faded, there is still the question of how Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will vote in the committee. Rubio grilled Tillerson about Russia during the confirmation hearing and seemed dissatisfied with some of his responses.
In appearances on Sunday talk shows, both McCain and Graham made clear that they remain uncertain about Trump’s foreign policy intentions, and that they hope to work with those they approve of in the Cabinet, some of whose ideas have contrasted with those expressed by Trump.
“I don’t know what ‘America first’ means,” Graham said, adding that Trump should not “be weak on Russia.”
McCain, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” echoed concerns about Russia, and Trump’s call for warmer relations, adding that Putin was “a war criminal.”
He said that Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, Trump national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, newly confirmed Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, and Daniel Coats, named as director of national intelligence, shared his view that Russia is “our major challenge.”
“I couldn’t have picked a better team,” McCain said. “And so I’m confident that [Trump] will listen to them and be guided by them.”
Asked whether he had similar confidence in Trump, McCain said, “I do not know, because he has made so many comments that are contradictory.”
Sean Sullivan, David Nakamura and Carol Morello, and William Booth in Jerusalem, contributed to this report.