GOP Leaders Actually Like Trump's Foreign Policy Speech

The reactions to the Republican frontrunner's speech could mark a tipping point for the party opinion of Trump.

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Trump delivers his first foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel, April 27, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Trump delivers his first foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel, April 27, 2016 in Washington, DC.Credit: Chip S

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If Donald Trump has begun to refer to himself as the “presumptive” Republican nominee, the positive reaction Wednesday by some party leaders and strategists to his foreign policy address seemed to affirm that notion.

Speaking from prepared remarks in Washington, D.C. — an unusual format and setting for the bombastic outsider candidate — Trump described U.S. foreign policy under President Obama and, by extension, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as “a complete and total disaster."

“This will all change when I become president,” Trump said. “America is going to be strong again. America is going to be reliable again. “This will all change when I become president,” Trump said. “America is going to be strong again. America is going to be reliable again. 

His remarks were short on details but dense with lofty promises. “ISIS will be gone if I am elected president,” Trump said at one point, “and they will be gone quickly.”

Although the candidate’s style was noticeably subdued, the speech in substance did not depart from what he has highlighted previously on the campaign trail, if often with less tact. But his points appeared to carry new weight for Republican leaders in the context of his likely nomination for the presidency.

“This was a serious foreign policy speech by Trump. It is worth reading and thinking about,” tweeted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has not endorsed a candidate. “It will be ridiculed by Washington elites.”

“Trump is helping himself a lot with this speech,” Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush, echoed on Twitter. “It will resonate well with a lot of traditional peace through strength Republicans.”

Even Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that Trump “delivered a very good foreign policy speech.”

The reactions seemed to mark a tipping point for Republican Party opinion of Trump. If the GOP in this election has endured the five stages of grief vis-a-vis Trump, beginning firmly with denial, many party activists and elected officials are now reaching the final phase — acceptance.

“It seems some Republicans after [Tuesday’s primaries] are willing to wave the white flag of surrender,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and former aide on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Indeed, by timing the speech immediately following Trump’s string of victories in the Northeast, his advisers hoped to cast Trump freshly in the light of a presumptive nominee.

On foreign policy in particular, however, Trump has consistently struggled to win the respect of fellow Republicans. An open letter published last month and signed by dozens of top Republicans in the foreign policy and national security spheres called Trump’s stances “wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle.” The letter characterized “his admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin,” among other issues, as “unacceptable.”

His speech Wednesday in part sought to speak to those skeptics within his own party by establishing a contrast with Trump’s likely alternative in the election, Clinton. In one section of his remarks, Trump attacked the former secretary of state’s response to the terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya: “Instead of taking charge that night, Hillary Clinton decided to go home and sleep,” he said. 

Trump also hoped to telegraph a message about his temperament, at a juncture where his campaign has suggested he will begin to mature as a candidate and showcase a more presidential side. Reading his speech from a teleprompter Wednesday, Trump did not veer from his script. 

Some resolutely anti-Trump Republicans were not won over by this version of the billionaire businessman. “Trump told the world that he's going to start saying things to sound mainstream,” said Tony Fratto, a Republican strategist and alumnus of President George W. Bush’s administration. “They shouldn't let themselves be fooled or used by Trump.” 

But, even prior to Wednesday, Fratto had come to see Trump as the party’s likely nominee. He said he was “disappointed” in Gingrich, Fleischer and others who have come to accept Trump — but not surprised.

“A Republican will lose” the general election, he said. “I expect it will be Trump, and I expect the loss will be historic, costing the party control of the Senate. Honestly, there's really nothing else to say.”