A few hours after he strengthened his claim to be the presumptive Republican nominee for president by winning five more primaries, Donald Trump delivered a speech on foreign policy in Washington on Wednesday to a group of foreign-policy insiders — a speech aimed at beefing up the presidential credentials of a man with an exceedingly thin resume on global affairs.
His remarks, while easy to challenge on several points — such as his suggestion that President Obama “has not been a friend to Israel” — were decidedly calmer and more coherent than the trash talk he has directed in the past against immigrants, Muslims and America’s allies and trading partners. Consider it a preview of Trump 2.0, the more substantive version of a candidate who’d previously been content to make simplistic but provocative policy declamations and lob rhetorical bombs at his rivals.
The performance, however, left us skeptical that the new Trump was really better than the old one.
The overarching theme of the speech was “America first,” a reworking of a slogan used by opponents of America’s involvement in World War II. For Trump it served as an umbrella for denunciations of “Islamic terrorism,” Chinese economic aggressiveness, penny-pinching NATO countries and an Obama administration that he says has lost the world’s respect.
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These are familiar themes for Trump, but in this speech he jettisoned some of his more extreme rhetoric. For example, where once he suggested cavalierly that NATO was obsolete, on Wednesday he took a more nuanced view. He repeated that if other NATO members didn’t pay their fair share, the U.S. would leave them to defend themselves. But he also suggested that he would work with NATO countries and America’s Asian allies on “new strategies” for tackling challenges such as migration and Islamic terrorism.
Perhaps most remarkably, while Trump reiterated that America needs new immigration policies, there was no mention of the famous wall along the Mexican border.
Much of Trump’s critique could have come from more traditional Republican candidates, including his denunciation of the agreement to restrain Iran’s nuclear program and his suggestion that what he called the Obama-Clinton foreign policy has created “weakness, confusion and disarray” in the Middle East. He also is not unique in suggesting (absurdly) that the key to defeating Islamic State and similar groups is for Obama to say the magic words “radical Islam.”
Even as he moderated his tone, Trump insisted that his would be an unconventional administration and that his foreign-policy advisers would come from outside the foreign policy establishment. Yet he suggested that they would be dedicated not to some reckless new agenda but to a foreign policy “that all Americans, whatever their party, can support,” a lofty aspiration that is hard to reconcile with Trump’s actual positions.
Trump’s speech was an exercise in reassurance. But welcome as his more moderate tone may be, it can’t erase the other objections to his candidacy: his lack of experience in government, his fondness for conspiracy theories and his indefensible comments about women and minorities. No matter how Trump recasts his policies in the weeks to come, his campaign has shown voters something important about his temperament and qualifications that they dare not forget.
The above editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times.