In abrupt shift, Trump appears to sour on Russia but warm to China and NATO

US President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg arrive for a joint news conference in the East Room at the White House in Washington, US, April 12, 2017. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Washington, DC, United States Apr 13, 2017, 08.45 AM (IST)

After less than three months in office, President Donald Trump has abruptly indicated a shift in his stance on an array of foreign policy issues from the US relationship with Russia and China to the value of the NATO alliance.

Trump, who ran for the White House on a pledge to shake up the status quo in Washington, repeatedly lashed out at China during the campaign, accusing Beijing of being a "grand champion" of currency manipulation. Candidate Trump also dismissed the NATO military alliance as obsolete and said he hoped to build warmer ties with Russia.

But at a White House news conference and in a newspaper interview on Wednesday, he offered starkly different views on those issues, saying his relationship with Moscow was souring while ties with Beijing were improving. He also lavished praise on NATO, saying it was adapting to changing global threats.

"I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete," Trump said as he stood at a news conference alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in the White House East Room on Wednesday. 

The apparent reversals on Russia and NATO could reassure US allies in Europe who were rattled by Trump's overtures toward Moscow during the campaign. But the president's talk of "bonding" with Chinese President Xi Jinping could sow confusion in Asia, where US allies are fearful of a rising China.

 

Trump claims US-Russia relations are at "all time low" 

Trump's U-turn in foreign policy came amid infighting within his administration that has lately seen a decline in the influence of political operatives, mainly his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, whose former publication Breitbart News is under FBI investigation for links to Russia.

Six months ago, candidate Trump suggested he was eager for an alliance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him," Trump said last September.

U.S. President Donald Trump voiced caution on his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he would wait and see about future ties with Moscow (Reuters)

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On Wednesday, however, Trump said he had growing concerns about Russia's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"We may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia," said Trump, who ordered the firing of US cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield last week after Putin-backed Assad was suspected of using poison gas against civilians in Syria's civil war.

While many are focused on Trump's claim that US-Russia relations are at a low, he also said in the very same press conference, "It would be wonderful...if Nato and our country could get along with Russia."

The Trump administration itself is currently under FBI investigation for its links to Russia, and for its possible role in working with Moscow's effort to interfere in the 2016 US election to benefit Trump.

 

China reversal

While criticising Russia on Wednesday, Trump said he and Xi had bonded during the Chinese president's visit to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where they dined together with their wives and held talks.

Ahead of that visit, Trump had predicted "difficult" discussions on trade.

The improving ties with Beijing were underscored when Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on Wednesday that he would not declare China a currency manipulator as he had pledged to do on his first day in office.

Trump, a former real estate developer, took office in January as a government novice whose foreign policy mantra was a vow to keep America safe and build up the US military.

 

Another reversal: Distancing himself from his own administration, again

In an interview with the New York Post on Tuesday, Trump offered only lukewarm support for Bannon.

“I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and governors, and I didn't know Steve. I'm my own strategist, and it's not like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary,” Trump said.

The claim that he didn't know Steve Bannon until the 2016 is false, the same New York Times reports.

 

Critics have pointed out that the Trump administration made similar distancing statements with former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and former National Security adviser Michael Flynn. 

White House Spokesman Sean Spicer said that Flynn was only a "campaign volunteer". Michael Flynn was forced to resign on February 13 for contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, contacts which he misled the Vice President about.

In another example, a few weeks ago Spicer said that in the 2016 election campaign Manafort only played "a very limited role for a very limited time". Manafort worked on the campaign for five months, during a crucial time, and was the campaign manager for three of those months, Fortune reports. 

He only resigned after a barrage of negative press after it came to light that he received millions of dollars in undisclosed payments from the party of the Russia-backed Ukrainian leader, Viktor Yanukovich.

Hours ago Manafort's spokesman said he is planning to register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, The Guardian reports. He denies any impropriety.

(WION with inputs from Reuters)

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