Donald Trump on Monday talked in a measured voice. He spoke from a script and made no wild, ad hoc accusations. In that sense, his anti-terrorism speech at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, was a success for a campaign that’s suffered in recent weeks from the candidate’s own unpredictability.
But despite its quiet, the speech could reverberate for days or weeks to come. That’s because Trump, emphasizing again and again the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism, expanded upon and made explicit some of his most controversial foreign policy statements. The GOP nominee may have been restrained, but he wasn’t backing down.
Take the subject of Russia and ISIS. On a day when the New York Times lead story dealt with the connections between Trump campaign advisor Paul Manafort and Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych, Trump might have skipped any Russia references as badly timed. But he didn’t. Instead, he explicitly proposed that the US work with Russia in “coalition operations” to fight ISIS
“They too have much at stake in the outcome in Syria, and have had their own battles with Islamic terror,” said Trump.
That would be a big change from current Obama administration policy, to put it mildly. But Trump didn’t deal with the fact that Russia’s Vladimir Putin insists on protecting his long-time supporter, Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad. The US and many of its other allies have long insisted that Assad, accused among other things of gassing his own citizens, needs to go.
Then there’s “extreme vetting." Those two words will probably end up as the most repeated phrase from the speech.
At its heart “extreme vetting” is a method that might help Trump get around the religious test embodied in his past suggestion of a temporary ban on the entry of non-citizen Muslims into the US – a means of religious discrimination that’s been heavily criticized.
Trump described the new vetting procedure as a test for immigrants or refugees from parts of the world bedeviled by terrorism. Possible entrants to the US would have to answer questions about whether they believed in a “tolerant” way of life and agreed with US values about the treatment of women, the rule of law, and the primacy of the US Constitution.
The US had such an ideological screening method during the Cold War, Trump said. “The time is overdue” for a similar approach for the war on terrorism, he added.
Critics on social media quickly noted that such a test might be easy to game. US officials could search applicants own social media records, but that would take much time and effort. The whole thing seemed not so much a change from the proposed Muslim ban, as a rebranding of the approach – something at which Trump is quite skilled.
Shift on NATO
In addition, Trump used the anti-terror speech to back away from his previous statement that the US should pull out of NATO unless other members paid more for the common defense. He noted – as he did in his Cleveland speech accepting the GOP nomination – that NATO now has a new anti-terrorism initiative, so it might be OK to stay in the alliance. He ascribed the announcement of the initiative to his own criticism of the organization, which NATO officials have said is false.
Trump’s allies said the speech showed that Trump has the ability to be presidential and handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief.
“He has the temperament to win,” said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani at the Youngstown rally.
Critics said the address showed the opposite.
“That speech was a reminder that Prompter Trump will always be just as dishonest and incompetent as Twitter Trump,” tweeted President Obama’s former speechwriter Jon Favreau.