Five takeaways from Trump’s trip to India
President Trump on Tuesday concluded a busy two-day trip to India, where he was received in spectacular fashion but came up short on securing a trade deal.
Trump used the visit to highlight accomplishments on defense cooperation and strengthening ties between the two countries.
He celebrated U.S.-India relations and his bond with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, even as the Indian leader’s Hindu nationalist party came under further scrutiny for its controversial citizenship law during Trump’s visit.
Here are five takeaways from Trump’s first trip to the South Asian country.
Trump touts deals while trade pact remains elusive
The trip included some modest achievements, including Trump announcing India’s agreement to purchase $3 billion worth of U.S. military helicopters, but there was no real progress toward a bilateral trade pact, something that has eluded the Trump administration.
The president has recently indicated there might not be a deal until after the November election.
“I would say if the deal happens with India, it will be toward the end of the year. And if it doesn’t happen, we’ll do something else that will be very satisfactory,” Trump said at a press conference in New Delhi.
Trump, who has made trade a key focus of his presidency, on Tuesday criticized India’s tariffs on overseas goods as “unfair” but said both sides were “working it out.”
Jeff Smith, an expert on South Asia at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the administration has little to show on the trade front after Trump’s visit.
“We weren’t given any signs that there was tangible progress made,” he said. “The best we have is continued signals that the political leadership is giving orders to the negotiators to get a deal done. That’s been the case for over a year now.”
Still, the defense deal carries significance beyond the price tag because it comes on top of increased military exercises and cooperation between the U.S. and India, according to Tanvi Madan, who directs the India Project at the Brookings Institution.
“I think the big effort will be to ensure that some of the trade stuff doesn’t come in the way” of other areas of cooperation, Madan said.
Experts said there were positive signs in other areas as well, such as talks of 5G expansion and memoranda of understanding inked by both sides on mental health and drug safety issues.
Trump aligns himself with Modi amid riots
Trump arrived in India at a time of civil unrest in the country over a controversial citizenship law that critics have deemed anti-Muslim.
The Citizenship Amendment Act offers sanctuary to non-Muslims fleeing religious persecution in nearby countries. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has faced a sustained backlash ever since the law took effect last year, culminating in violent protests that punctuated Trump’s visit to New Delhi.
Trump sidestepped questions about the riots and the law during a press conference on Tuesday, while defending Modi’s record on religious freedom broadly.
“The prime minister was incredible in what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom, and very strongly,” Trump told reporters, adding that he had “heard about” the violence but that it was “up to India” to handle.
Trump’s remarks, however, could prompt further backlash among critics of the law who wanted him to press the issue more publicly during his visit.
Madan of the Brookings Institution said Trump would have likely been criticized no matter what he said.
“For one, he could inflame the situation if he went off script,” Madan said. “From an administration perspective, whatever they would have said would have been criticized.”
Trump’s appearance in India cemented the close bond between the two leaders, who both rose to power on their populist agendas.
Trump declared alongside Modi on Tuesday that the U.S.-India partnership is “now truly stronger than ever before” even amid a standoff on trade between the two sides.
Coronavirus shadows American president
Trump was unable to escape the growing domestic and global concerns surrounding the coronavirus that have sent U.S. stocks tumbling this week.
The president repeatedly sought to downplay the threat of the virus amid a dramatic uptick in confirmed cases in other countries, touting his administration’s steps to mitigate and contain the virus and expressing confidence in Chinese President Xi Jinping to handle the outbreak that originated in China.
“We have very few people with it,” Trump told reporters at the press conference, saying the virus was “well under control” in the U.S. “The people are getting better. They’re all getting better.”
Trump said the topic came up during bilateral meetings in India, but didn’t elaborate.
But as Trump prepared to board a plane out of New Delhi on Tuesday, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told reporters that the spread of the virus in the United States appeared inevitable.
The White House on Monday night asked Congress for $2.5 billion to fight the disease, a figure that drew criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as being insufficient.
Big crowds please Trump
Trump was offered an elaborate welcome in India that satisfied his appetite for large crowds and striking displays.
Indian citizens lined the streets to welcome the president and first lady Melania Trump on Monday, waving American flags as Trump’s motorcade transited to a packed rally-like event in the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad, the capital of Modi’s home state of Gujarat. The streets were lined with billboards depicting Trump and Modi.
Trump later addressed the crowd of roughly 100,000, an event that dwarfed his domestic campaign rallies in size and spectacle.
Trump’s two-day stay also included stops at some of India’s most majestic sites, including a visit to the Taj Mahal and a ceremonial welcome at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Trump repeatedly remarked on the crowd size of the Ahmedabad event over the course of his visit and thanked Modi for the warm welcome that the country showed him.
“Melania and I have been awed by the majesty of India and the exceptional kindness and generosity of the Indian people,” Trump said alongside Modi on Tuesday.
Trump largely stays on message
Trump largely adhered to his administration’s positions on India and sidestepped more controversial topics that could have hampered the bilateral relationship over the course of the trip.
Smith of the Heritage Foundation, who was in New Delhi at the time of the president’s trip, said Trump’s 30-minute speech in Ahmedabad was received positively in the country’s capital.
“President Trump was surprisingly on message and disciplined in his speech in the stadium in Gujarat. That was really well-received in Delhi,” Smith said. “If anything did exceed expectations it was probably the content of the speech he delivered.”
Trump was rather subdued at the start of his Tuesday press conference, telling reporters he didn’t want to be “at all controversial” because it would distract from what was otherwise a productive trip.
But the president did end up wading into some touchy U.S. topics when fielding questions, at one point defending his call for Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonya Sotomayor to recuse themselves from “Trump-related” matters.
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