Standing alongside British Prime Minister Theresa May in the White House East Room, Trump wouldn’t say whether he was planning to lift sanctions on Moscow ahead of a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday. Nor would he outwardly affirm his support for NATO.
Compared to his pre-inauguration news conference in New York, Trump answered questions on his foreign policy prescriptions with uncharacteristic caution. During each answer, Trump stopped himself after only a few minutes, moved little beyond what he’s said previously, and displayed none of the brashness that became his hallmark on the campaign trail.
Asked about the return of waterboarding for suspected terrorists, Trump declared the torture technique works. But he said he would allow his Defense Secretary James Mattis to “override” him on torture, an issue where the two men fundamentally disagree.
“I happen to feel that it does work,” Trump said. “I’ve been open about that for a long period of time. But I am going with our leaders. And we’re going to win with or without, but I do disagree.”
May, who was under pressure from rights groups in Britain to condemn torture during her visit to the White House, said only that on areas of disagreement, she would carry out a “open and frank discussion” with the US leader. And while both leaders went out of their way to create a friendly ambience, it was up to May to bring up the issues at the top of her wishlist: public backing of NATO or say he would work to swiftly work towards a free trade deal with Britain once it leaves the European Union.
“Mr. President, I think you said, you confirmed that you’re 100% behind NATO. But we’re also discussing the importance of NATO continuing to ensure it is as equipped to fight terrorism and cyber warfare as it is to fight more conventional forms of war,” May said, seeking both to bolster the military bloc but but also to forge a way forward following the President’s complaints that it is obsolete.
The 18-minute news conference in the White House East Room capped a turbulently productive seven days in office for Trump. He’s taken rapid-pace executive action, including ordering the federal government to begin construction on his promised wall between the United States and Mexico.
That move put Trump in his first diplomatic flap. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday abruptly canceled a planned visit to Washington.
On Friday, Trump described a “very, very friendly” call with the Mexican leader, which took place in the morning before May arrived for talks.
At the same time, Trump insisted he would maintain a tough stance on trade with the US neighbor.
“Mexico with the United States has out-negotiated us and beat us to a pulp through our past leaders,” Trump said. “They have made us look foolish.”
He said he would work to bolster a “soft and weak” border and prevent American jobs from moving across the border.
“We’re no longer going to be the country that doesn’t know what it’s doing,” Trump said.
And ahead of a Saturday phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump indicated a willingness to work with Moscow.
“We’ll see what happens,” Trump said of the call. He said it was “too early” to discuss removing sanctions that were issued on Russia under his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
“We’re looking to have a great relationship with all countries,” Trump said. “If we can have a great relationship with Russia and China and all countries I’m all for that.”
Relations between the US and the UK, however, remain strong, Trump said, hailing the “special relationship” between the nations as “one of the great forces of history.”
“Our relationship has never been stronger,” Trump said.
May underscored the sentiment, saying Queen Elizabeth II invited Trump for a state visit later this year.
Trump said both he and May were adamant that governments “be responsive to everyday working people” and show respect for their citizens.
For Trump, the event was an opportunity to fully capitalize on his new office, trading the lobby of Trump Tower — the site of his last fiery news conference — for the iconic gold curtains and presidential podium in the East Room.
Vastly different in persona, the bombastic Trump and the sober May appeared friendly despite their differences. May is the daughter of a vicar in the Cotswalds and has been known for her constrained public appearances. Trump’s brazenness upended US political norms in last year’s election.
“I’m not as brash as you might think. And I can tell you that I think we’re going to get along very well,” Trump said Friday. “You know, it’s interesting because I am a people person. I think you are also, Theresa. And I can often tell how I get along with somebody very early, and I believe we’re going to have a fantastic relationship.”