5 takeaways from Trump's first overseas trip as president

5 takeaways from Trump's first overseas trip as president
© Getty Images

With his first trip abroad as president behind him, when President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse expected to vote on omnibus Thursday afternoon House passes 'right to try' drug bill Spending bill rejects Trump’s proposed EPA cut MORE lands in Washington overnight Saturday he arrives to a slew of controversies besieging his administration. It may be a rude awakening after what Trump called a "home run" of a trip.

The White House has remained largely quiet on controversies swirling at home and will likely seek to emphasize the president's traveling successes in coming days. Trump and his aides hope to take a victory lap over his first overseas trip — a sweeping nine-day excursion through five different countries across the Middle East and Europe.

In Saudi Arabia, the president's first stop abroad, Trump secured a massive arms sale, worth about $110 billion.


In Jerusalem, he shored up the United States' relationship with Israel and reaffirmed his commitment to Middle East peacemaking. 

And in Brussels, Trump ratcheted up his call for NATO members to bolster their defense spending in order to meet their treaty obligations. 

Here are five takeaways from the president's tumultuous trip.

Trump took a softer tone on Islam

Trump moved away from his once-strident rhetoric on Islam during an address in Riyadh to leaders across the Muslim world last Sunday, calling instead for unity in the fight against Islamist extremism. 

"This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations," Trump said. "This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion, people that want to protect life and want to protect their religion. This is a battle between good and evil."

Not once in his speech did Trump revert to his once-frequent use of the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" to describe the extremist groups and militants he has vowed to combat. 

But he also called on Muslim leaders to "drive out the terrorists and extremists" from their societies, and urged them to do more to combat extremist ideologies in the Muslim world. 

He reaffirmed support for Israel and pressed for Middle East peace

The president arrived in Israel amid revelations that he had divulged highly classified intelligence provided by the key ally to Russian officials. But Trump quickly managed to ease the controversy and reaffirm U.S. support for Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raved on Twitter about Trump's "taking such a strong stand for Israel and the Jewish people."

Trump paid a solemn visit to the Western Wall in East Jerusalem, where he stayed for a moment of silence before placing a note between the wall's stones. It was the first trip to the wall by a sitting president, though other presidents have visited the holy site either before or after leaving the White House.

But he also expressed the hope of making peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and never declared his intention to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move that would be certain to anger Palestinians, please Israel and complicate peacemaking.

"I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals in the world,” he said, referring to Middle East peacemaking. "But I’m sure we’re going to get there eventually."

Trump berated NATO over defense spending

Trump's "America first" approach to foreign policy was on full display in Brussels when the president addressed a gathering of fellow NATO members at the organization's headquarters in Belgium.

At the heart of his speech was his assertion that the U.S. is shouldering an unfair burden of NATO's defense costs, and that member countries must spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense, a target that all members agreed on in 2014. Currently, only five NATO countries meet that spending target. 

"This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States," he said, speaking directly to the world leaders during a ceremony in Brussels. "And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years."

The complaint that other countries aren't doing enough to provide for their own defense is one that Trump frequently touted on the campaign trail.

But after a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last month, Trump pivoted on his claim that the treaty organization is "obsolete," leading some to question whether the president would take an approach to NATO more typical of past presidents.

Nevertheless, in his address to NATO leaders, Trump refused to reaffirm U.S. support for the organization's principle of mutual defense, and failed to address growing European concern over Russia's intentions in the region.

He declined to pledge support for the Paris climate agreement

Trump refused to join Group of Seven (G7) leaders on Saturday in taking a pledge to support the Paris climate deal, leaving it unclear as to whether the U.S. will remain part of the agreement.

If the U.S. withdraws, as Trump has floated in the past, it would be the first to do so among the 195 countries that have agreed to the deal. Trump's decision not to take the pledge further highlighted a stark division between the U.S. and its allies on the issue of climate change.

But as a presidential candidate, Trump campaigned on bolstering American fossil fuels, particularly the coal industry.

Still, the president's aides left open the possibility of Trump sticking to the climate agreement, saying that his views on the issue are "evolving" as he speaks to other leaders about it. 

“I think his views are evolving,” National Economic Council Director Gary CohnGary Davivd CohnGary Cohn: I'm still a Democrat Trump backs House GOP tax bill Trump names candidates for top Fed job MORE said. “He came here to learn, he came here to get smarter and he came here to hear people’s views.”

Trump never held a press conference

Trump broke from tradition in never fielding reporters' questions in a news conference during the trip, which is unlike his predecessors. In the week leading up to his departure on the trip, the White House faced a series of controversies that began with the president's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey earlier in the month.

Those scandals continued to mount throughout his trip, and White House officials have remained largely silent on them, although aides took a few questions in media gaggles and conference calls. In a press conference on Saturday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Cohn declined to answer questions about the growing controversy surrounding Trump's senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Cohn also insisted that Trump had simply been too busy on his trip to address members of the news media.

"The president, since he left [Washington] has been dealing with foreign leaders, he's been dealing with jobs, he's been dealing with economic growth, he's been dealing with diplomacy, he's been dealing with unfair trade, he's been dealing with Paris, he's been dealing with China," Cohn said.

"His agenda has been overflowing. He's been fully consumed with what's going on here."

Senior White House officials on Saturday continued to remain quiet in response to revelations that Kushner discussed with Russia's ambassador establishing a backchannel line of communication between the Trump transition team and Moscow.

Meanwhile, Trump has hired attorney Marc Kasowitz as an outside lawyer to help him navigate the sensitive legal ground surrounding ongoing federal investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin.

With daily press briefings expected to resume, the White House will likely face questions on those controversies among others within Trump's first days back in the U.S.