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Trump's First International Trip Offers Chance To Refocus Foreign Policy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump received a warm welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel today. This is the second stop on his first overseas trip as president. In this visit, Netanyahu said, quote, "I see a real hope for change." Trump echoed that sentiment and raised the prospect of an eventual peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've heard it's one of the toughest deals of all. But I have a feeling that we're going to get there eventually, I hope.

CORNISH: Trump will meet tomorrow with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has been watching President Trump's trip closely. She joins us in the studio now. Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: What stands out to you so far?

LIASSON: My biggest takeaway is Donald Trump's reorienting U.S. foreign policy against Iran. He's now standing squarely with Sunni Arab countries and Israel against their common enemy. He's not just returning to the old days of standing with Sunni Arab strongman because we need the oil - we don't really need the oil anymore - but because Trump sees them as the coalition to fight terrorism. Now, whether that pays off in terms of fighting ISIS or encouraging peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis remains to be seen.

CORNISH: People have also remarked on the president's rhetorical shift in Saudi Arabia. Can you talk about that?

LIASSON: He really softened his language in the way he talked about Islam. He said it was one of the world's great faiths. In that part of his remarks, he sounded almost like President Obama or George W. Bush. He really steered clear of the term radical Islamic terrorism. And you know, during the campaign, he had attacked Saudi Arabia repeatedly for, quote, throwing gays off buildings, enslaving women. He called on Hillary Clinton to return the money the Clinton Foundation got from Saudi Arabia. Now his daughter Ivanka took a $100 million donation from Saudi Arabia for her World Bank women entrepreneurs initiative.

So he's also backing away from any mention of human rights. He said, we're not here to lecture you or tell you how to run your country. This is Donald Trump's transactional foreign policy on display. He announces a big arms deal, and he has been very explicit about his desire to focus on shared national security interests, not values like democracy or human rights.

CORNISH: Now, what about some of these domestic Washington scandals? Have they chased him overseas?

LIASSON: Actually, they haven't come up until the president brought them up unprompted today after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A Bloomberg reporter asked Netanyahu whether the intelligence cooperation between Israel and the U.S. had been affected. Netanyahu said it was terrific, better than ever. This was in reference to the highly sensitive classified intelligence reportedly from Israel that Donald Trump shared with the Russians. Then Trump piped up and said, I never said the word Israel.

And that was very curious for a couple of reasons - one because no one has ever accused the president of telling the Russians what country the intelligence came from. As a matter of fact, his national security adviser said the president couldn't have shared the country of origin with the Russians even if he wanted to because he had not been briefed on where the intelligence came from. So he brought it up himself.

CORNISH: Right, so if he brings it up himself, what does that mean about his ability to come back from this trip and not just, like, end up right back in the thick of these controversies?

LIASSON: That's the big question. So far from the White House point of view, this trip has gone very, very well. But as one Trump supporter said today, the bad news is the president has to come home. And we don't know yet if this trip is a respite from controversies at home or a true reset where he's able to start a new chapter when he gets back to Washington. That would mean refraining from talking about any Russia issues as long as it's under investigation. That's the silver lining of having a special counsel on the job if Trump can stay disciplined enough to take advantage of it.

CORNISH: One more thing - a development involving former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. What's going on?

LIASSON: That's right. Michael Flynn is invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, which is his absolute right. He's told the Senate intelligence committee he's not going to talk to them or hand over documents. That gave everyone with access to Google the chance to look back at what Flynn and Trump said about people who take the Fifth during the campaign, namely they have something to hide. Only mobsters take the Fifth. There's no reason to take it if you're innocent. And on this one, at least during the campaign, Mike Flynn and Donald Trump were expressing the widespread view of Americans that people who take the Fifth have something to hide.

CORNISH: NPR's Mara Liasson - Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.