Donald Trump defends controversial former national security adviser
Washington — US President Donald Trump hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Wednesday — and dropped his predecessors’ longtime attachment to a two-state solution in any Middle East peace settlement.
In the meantime, his still-young administration continued down a tumultuous path as Trump’s under-fire nominee for labour secretary withdrew from consideration.
Trump also spent time defending his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn — who resigned on Monday amid furore over his reported contacts with Russian intelligence — as a victim of "illegal leaks" to "fake media". And at Nato headquarters, defence secretary James Mattis conveyed Trump’s message that the US’s allies needed to carry more weight.
Here are five takeaways from the day, from Washington and Brussels:
Trump, departing from the steadfast preference of his three predecessors, said he had no special attachment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and would back a single state if it led to peace.
"I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but, honestly, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best," he said at a White House news conference with Netanyahu.
While warmly welcoming the Israeli leader, Trump did urge him to refrain for a "little bit" from building Jewish settlements, which Palestinians fervently oppose. But he also said that "the Palestinians have to get rid of some of that hate that they’re taught from a very young age".
Netanyahu and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had a notably prickly relationship. The warm vibe between the Israeli leader and Trump was one they both emphasised.
Despite intense opposition to some of his cabinet picks, Trump has managed to get most of them confirmed. Not so his choice for labour secretary, Andrew Puzder, who withdrew from consideration on Wednesday, amid intense scrutiny of his business record and personal past.
The withdrawal of the fast-food executive dealt a new blow to the president on the heels of Flynn’s resignation Monday.
Puzder offered little explanation but vowed his full support for "the president and his highly qualified team". Critics had blasted Puzder for opposing a minimum wage for workers, for initially failing to pay taxes on an undocumented employee and over embarrassing questions raised by a messy divorce several years ago.
Still struggling to contain the damage over Flynn’s contacts with Russia, Trump dismissed talk of any Russian connection as "non-sense" and blamed the debacle on "illegal leaks" from US intelligence agencies.
"This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign," Trump said on Twitter.
The New York Times had reported on Tuesday that US intelligence agents intercepted calls showing that members of Trump’s campaign had repeated contacts with top Russian intelligence officials before the November election.
Trump tweeted that "information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes and @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?) Just like Russia."
Europeans were unnerved during the US campaign by suggestions from Trump that they might not always be able to count on the strong US support they have long relied on. Defence secretary James Mattis may not have eased those concerns on Wednesday, bluntly warning allies at Nato headquarters in Brussels that the Trump administration would "moderate its commitment" to the alliance unless members met their spending pledges.
Washington has long called on its allies to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence, but only a handful do so. Mattis’s words, however, are likely to resonate among Europeans — already worried by the threat from Russia in the east — at a time when Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for President Vladimir Putin.
"Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do," Mattis said. "If your nations do not want to see the US moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals need to show support for our common defense."
It was a "firm message", Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said later, adding that it would be clearly heard by his colleagues.
Asked at the news conference about a spike in antiSemitic acts in the US, Trump promised that Americans would be seeing "a lot of love" across the country — but he did so only after bragging about his election win.
AntiSemitic attacks increased in the days after Trump’s November election, and an Israeli journalist asked if the Republican agreed with those who said the new administration might be "playing with xenophobia".
Trump offered a rather circuitous answer — first congratulating himself on the size of his electoral college victory. He then vowed: "We are going to stop crime in this country. We are going to do everything in our power to stop long-simmering racism."
Trump then shifted gears to mention his daughter and son-in-law are Jewish, before closing with: "I think that you’re going to see a lot different United States of America over the next three, four or eight years. I think a lot of good things are happening and you’re going to see a lot of love."
Trump’s response drew some acid commentary. One tweeter drily summed up his response as: "I won the election and also my daughter is Jewish."