The Cable

In Foreign Policy Speech, @realDonaldTrump Comes Through Despite Efforts To Appear Presidential

In a big-billing foreign policy address, the Republican front-runner tried to recast himself as a serious candidate.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27:  Using teleprompters, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech about his vision for foreign policy at the Mayflower Hotel April 27, 2016 in Washington, DC. A real estate billionaire and reality television star, Trump beat his GOP challengers by double digits in Tuesday's presidential primaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Deleware, Rhode Island and Connecticut. 'I consider myself the presumptive nominee, absolutely,' Trump told supporters at the Trump Tower following yesterday's wins.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 27: Using teleprompters, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a speech about his vision for foreign policy at the Mayflower Hotel April 27, 2016 in Washington, DC. A real estate billionaire and reality television star, Trump beat his GOP challengers by double digits in Tuesday's presidential primaries in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Deleware, Rhode Island and Connecticut. 'I consider myself the presumptive nominee, absolutely,' Trump told supporters at the Trump Tower following yesterday's wins. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Gone were most of the characteristic one-liners and mud slinging. Still missing were specifics on plans to lead the United States. Yet in what he billed as his first big foreign policy speech, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump adopted a measured tone and serious demeanor as he sought to recast himself as prepared to become a wartime commander in chief.

Speaking Wednesday to a largely reserved and grayed audience at a regal Washington hotel, the normally bombastic Trump broadly reinforced many of the same critiques and threats that critics have called dangerous and uninformed, ranging from trade to immigration to the Islamic State. Yet the same platform has drawn voters who rally behind his claim that “America doesn’t win anymore.”

The speech also offered a look at Trump’s emerging worldview: That an anti-interventionist, nativist foreign policy that gives rise to economic and military power alike can be wielded as a bludgeon against allies and enemies. On the campaign trail, however, Trump wraps his views in conservative Republican red meat about “radical Islamic terrorism” and hawkish bluster on military force.

“It’s time to shake the rust off America’s foreign policy,” Trump began, sounding stilted relative to his typical off-the-cuff style. He lambasted President Barack Obama’s policies in the Mideast as helping “throw the region into chaos and give ISIS the space it needs to grow and prosper,” he said, reading from a Teleprompter.

Still, he could not resist one of his characteristic rhetorical quirks: “Very bad.”

Some of his ideas sounded uncannily familiar compared to the Democratic president he is seeking to replace. Trump has derided Obama as too cautious on the world stage; on Wednesday, however, he said “a superpower understands that caution and restraint are truly signs of strength.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, seized on Trump’s unpredictability even before he delivered his speech, calling him a “loose cannon.”  

“Nothing he can say can hide the long list of dangerous national security proposals he’s put forward,” said a statement released Wednesday by the Clinton campaign “…He has used the most reckless rhetoric of any major presidential candidate in modern history.”

So far in his campaign, Trump has suggested he may nuke Europe to target terrorists; invade Iraq and give its oil revenues to American veterans; pull U.S. troops out of South Korea and Japan and encourage both nations then to develop their own nuclear weapons; and, infamously, to force Mexico to pay for a wall on its northern border with the U.S.

“Our resources are totally overextended,” he said Wednesday. He slammed Obama for having “weakened our military,” and cited a trade deficit approaching $1 billion a year. “Ending the theft of American jobs,” he said, “will give us the resources we need to rebuild the American military.”

Even as he attacked Obama for not investing in U.S. security through military spending, Trump again hit NATO, a favored punching bag, for not “paying their fair share.” he said. Partners must pay, “and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice,” he said.

But he also called military spending the cheapest investment in America’s security — an argument NATO proponents have made for why the U.S. should continue supporting the organization.

Trump knocked the Obama administration for its frosty relationship with Israel, saying, “We pick fights with our oldest friends and now they’re starting to look elsewhere for help.” Tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spiked around Obama’s signature Iran nuclear deal, and don’t seemed to have cooled.

“President Obama has not been a friend to Israel,” Trump continued, but, “he’s treated Iran with tender care.”

While Trump gave a popular speech at AIPAC earlier this year, he too has been criticized for saying he’d remain neutral in trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine, a goal that has eluded several U.S. presidents.

He baldly refused to outline how he would defeat the Islamic State, saying doing so would undermine his strategy. “Their days are numbered,” he said. “I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how … We must, as a nation, be more unpredictable.”

Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and former State Department official who has helped organize Republican national security experts around a “Never Trump” push, said if Trump’s intention was to recast himself as presidential, the speech was “a failure.”

Trump’s speech was “the usual mixture of bombast, braggadocio, self-contradiction, and assertions that only he understands, and only he can rescue the United States,” Cohen told Foreign Policy.

Trump’s most consistent theme is winning, a message he’s been reinforcing with his victories on the campaign trail. Efforts to stop Trump’s march to the Republican presidential nomination seem to have crumbled — his sweep of five Eastern states Tuesday night put him within striking distance of the required 1,237 delegates, potentially staving off a contested convention this summer.

When you’ve got votes, you don’t need endorsements,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s only supporter in the Senate. His colleague, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is reluctantly backing Sen. Ted Cruz, could not have agreed less. Graham tweeted of the speech: “Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave.”

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla / Staff

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