A day after sweeping primaries across the Northeast on his march to the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump sought to boost his commander-in-chief credentials with a speech promising to dramatically upend U.S. foreign policy.
“‘America first’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” Trump said Wednesday in Washington, reaching back to a World War II-era isolationist slogan. As president, he pledged, he’ll “develop a new foreign policy purpose for our country, one that replaces randomness with purpose, ideology with strategy, and chaos with peace. It's time to shake the rust off America's foreign policy.”
Trump’s address relied on broad assurances and political rhetoric, covering much of the world without addressing the complexities that one promise introduced to another. His speech, in which he didn’t unveil policy specifics, tied his anti-interventionist and world-wary views to his immigration restrictionism and anti-trade policies, which have been staples of his campaign during his rise in the Republican race.
“Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster. No vision, no purpose, no direction, no strategy,” he said, identifying as one problem U.S. interventions, such as in Iraq and Libya, based on “the dangerous idea that we could make western democracies out of countries that had no interest” in becoming one.
“The Trump administration will lead a free world that is properly armed and funded—and funded beautifully,” he said, saying he’d boost military spending and focus on combating “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Trump’s proposals—which include temporarily banning the entry of Muslims to the U.S., forcing Mexico to pay for a wall along its U.S. border, and making Persian Gulf states pay for a “safe zone” in war-torn Syria—have been scorned by many foreign governments and policy experts, yet proven popular with conservative voters.
Leading up to the address, given at the Mayflower Hotel, Trump faced pressure to identify who gave him foreign policy advice, and announced a team in March led by Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Last month on MSNBC, Trump described himself as his chief foreign policy adviser “because I have a very good brain.”
After Tuesday's voting, Trump has more than three-quarters of the delegates he needs to win the Republican nomination outright, according to Associated Press estimates.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is now about 90 percent of the way there. Her experience as President Barack Obama's top diplomat until 2013 helps make her a formidable opponent on the issue of foreign policy: A recent George Washington University Battleground Poll found that even though a generic GOP candidate has an advantage of 48 to 44 percent over Democrats on foreign affairs, Clinton leads Trump by a margin of 60 to 33 percent in that category among voters nationally.
Trump assailed the Iran nuclear deal, which Clinton supports, and said the U.S. has faced “humiliation” at the hands of Iran. “Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” he said. Obama has “treated Iran with tender love and care and made it a great power,” he said.
Trump also stressed a link between immigration and U.S. security, insisting that “we must stop importing extremism through senseless immigration policies.” He said that “we’re also going to have to change our trade immigration and economic policies to make our economy strong again and put Americans first again.”
The New York billionaire, who has emphasized his opposition to free-trade pacts throughout his campaign, said he would “never surrender” Americans to “the false song of globalization.” There “will be consequences for the companies that leave the United States only to exploit it later,” he said.
Trump also sought to distinguish himself from rivals—though he didn’t name them—by saying he would prioritize diplomacy and restraint as president.
“Unlike other candidates for the presidency,” he said, “more aggression will not be my first instinct. You cannot have a foreign policy without diplomacy. A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really, truly signs of strength.”
In response, Senator Ted Cruz, Trump's chief rival in the race for the nomination, was scathing. “This speech is the most dramatic evidence thus far that Donald Trump fails the presidential test,” he said. Cruz also noted that Trump's convention manager was “widely recognized for his entanglements with corrupt foreign regimes and anti-Democratic rulers.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading voice on foreign policy in Congress and supporter of Cruz, mocked the front-runner's speech in a series of Twitter posts.
“Trump speech is pathetic in terms of understanding the role America plays in the world, how to win War on Terror, and threats we face,” Graham wrote. He added that the speech was “not conservative. It’s isolationism surrounded by disconnected thought, demonstrates lack of understanding [of the] threats we face. Final thought on Trump's foreign policy speech—Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave.”
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, strongly disagreed. “This was a serious foreign policy speech by Trump,” he said on Twitter. “It is worth reading and thinking about. It will be ridiculed by Washington elites.”
Jim Gilmore, a former Virginia governor and 2016 presidential candidate who attended the speech, said he didn't hear any new policies, describing it as a mix of being “willing to pull back” from foreign engagements and “strong belligerent talk” against enemies.
“I think these are the things he's been saying on the campaign trail,” Gilmore said, “summed up in one speech. I do. It's a lot of everything.”