Terror key theme for Trump abroad, but gaps in agenda remain

Published 1:07 AM EDT, Wed May 24, 2017
01:13 - Source: CNN
Trump: Muslims must confront 'Islamic terror'

Story highlights

Trump arrived in Rome Tuesday

The Manchester attack was Monday night

CNN —  

Arriving in terror-shaken Europe Tuesday, President Donald Trump confronts in real time the threats that have underpinned his agenda as he travels abroad for the first time, his message meeting reality on a continent still deeply skeptical of his motivations.

The suicide attack at a Manchester, England, pop concert unfolded as Trump overnighted in Israel, a country deeply familiar with terror’s scourge. He’d arrived hours earlier from Saudi Arabia, where he worked to unify Arab Gulf leaders against the type of extremism that leads to craven terror sprees. And he touched down in Rome on Tuesday ahead of two key summits in Europe where terror will now take an outsized role.

“This is what I’ve spent these last few days talking about during my trip oversees,” Trump said Tuesday as he stood aside Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, after talks in Bethlehem. “Our society can have no tolerance for this continuation of bloodshed, we cannot stand a moment longer for the slaughter of innocent citizens.”

“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. I will call them losers from now on because that is what they are: losers,” Trump said, a line bearing Trump’s hallmark rhetorical style that a senior White House official said he wrote himself Tuesday morning from his room at the King David Hotel near Jerusalem’s Old City.

Trump’s message on combating terror was largely well-received in the Middle East, where leaders have long sought firmer security commitments from the United States. But there remained few specifics in his plan to combat terrorist ideologies, and some aspects of Trump’s stated strategy to combat terrorism appear to contradict some his own administration’s actions.

02:46 - Source: CNN
Trump: Terror a battle between good and evil

Anti-terror plans

Trump’s plan as laid out over the weekend in Saudi Arabia relies primarily on soft power: applying pressure on foreign governments to restrict terrorist financing and better monitor online extremism. But his proposed budget, the full version of which was released Tuesday, delivers drastic cuts to the State Department, the agency responsible for coordinating such initiatives with foreign governments.

The President has proposed dramatically increasing military spending. But in Saudi Arabia, Trump did not lay out a military strategy against ISIS, nor did he make in-depth mention of the current US military efforts against the group, which are augmented by support from Gulf nations.

Trump’s administration has been reviewing plans to go after Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and said during a meeting with the Emir of Kuwait this week that he planned a news conference in two weeks’ time to announce what progress his administration has made against the terror group.

“We’re doing very well in the fight against ISIS,” Trump said at the beginning of the meeting, one in a string of short talks with Arab leaders ahead of his major address in Riyadh. “Tremendous progress has been made. And will continue to be made.”

The promise of a news conference to address ISIS, however, has been a long-running feature of Trump’s administration that has yet to materialize.

As he departs the region for Europe, Trump will find himself confronted with leaders vastly more skeptical of his agenda than the Arab or Israeli officials he consulted on the first half of his foreign swing.

His professed willingness to scrap longstanding tenets of transatlantic ties has fostered deep unease on the continent toward Trump, even as pragmatic elected officials here work to foster relationships with him. Simmering anxieties after homespun terror attacks in Brussels, Paris, and Nice, France, however, have helped fuel right-wing, anti-immigration parties in Europe that have aligned themselves with Trump, a political upheaval that’s caused heartburn for the continent’s establishment.

01:23 - Source: CNN
What's the point of NATO?

NATO focus on terrorism

Anxieties over homegrown terror are now expected to feature heavily at talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where Trump will attend a truncated meeting of leaders on Thursday. The matter will also arise when Trump touches down on Sicily at the end of the week to attend his first G7 summit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who spoke with Trump Tuesday after the Manchester attack, is expected to attend both gatherings.

European officials say they are looking for Trump to more fully articulate what has remained a purposely ambiguous agenda, including his view of NATO. Trump has recently taken credit for shifting NATO’s focus toward terrorism, despite the group’s decade-and-a-half long engagement in Afghanistan, and say he’s committed to bolstering the group by pressing member states to increase military spending.

But when it comes to Trump and NATO, uncertainty remains. Trump deemed the military collective outdated on the campaign trail, and while he’s softened his stance since taking office, his ultimate goals remain unclear. This week, a senior US administration official told European reporters that Trump has not ruled out withdrawing from the group.