WASHINGTON – Mr. Trump came to Washington to meet the establishment he has demonized the past 10 months. It was not love at first sight.
His campaign left nothing to chance for his coming out as a general-election candidate Wednesday, the day after primary wins in five states made him the all but inevitable Republican presidential nominee.
Trump, who routinely mocks President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for using a teleprompter and who said that presidential candidates “should not be allowed to use a teleprompter,” used a teleprompter.
He carefully read a speech somebody else had written, demonstrated both by his lack of familiarity with the content – he pronounced Tanzania as “Tan-ZANY-uh” – and by its un-Trumpian phrases such as “the false song of globalism” and “the clear lens of American interests.” This speech was at an eighth-grade comprehension level, five years beyond Trump’s usual.
The campaign also selected its audience carefully, inviting luminaries such as Bob Woodward and Judy Woodruff but turning back others at the door. One pernicious practice of the Trump campaign is to screen journalists covering his events by requiring them to apply for credentials for each event and then deciding which to admit. (The event host, the Center for the National Interest, let me in after the Trump campaign ignored my credential request.)
Trump did not repeat his most inflammatory positions: banning all Muslims from entering the country, getting his foreign policy advice from TV shows, bombing the [excrement] out of the Islamic State, letting South Korea and others get nuclear weapons, imposing a 45 percent tariff on China, returning the use of torture and condoning the killing of innocents, suggesting refugees could be a “Trojan Horse” for terrorists and forcing Mexico to finance a border wall.
But even then it was not a warm and fuzzy reception for Trump. A protestor outside the Mayflower Hotel, the event site, held a “Trump [equals] Nazi” sign, and others chanted in the hotel lobby before the event. Trump’s hosts, a conservative foreign policy think tank dedicated to Nixonian realism, were only somewhat more hospitable. Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the center’s publication, The National Interest, has written that “a Trump presidency would likely be a foreign policy debacle.”
The group’s vice chairman, Dov Zakheim, signed a letter with other GOP foreign policy leaders calling Trump and his policies “unmoored,” a “recipe for economic disaster,” “inexcusable,” “hateful,” “unacceptable,” “fundamentally dishonest” and “a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States” and calling him “utterly unfitted” to be president.
“He’s got to do a lot more than give a speech,” Zakheim, who was out of town on vacation, told me by phone Wednesday. “It’s not us he has to convince – it’s the world.”
The reality TV star probably wasn’t trying to win over the foreign policy mandarins anyway. In his remarks, he said he would prefer “new people” rather than those who “look awfully good writing in The New York Times or being watched on television.”
More likely, he was using the foreign policy graybeards as props to show voters he isn’t as crazy as he seems. His campaign had asked the think tank to host the event.
In his own fashion, Trump was reassuring. He said Ronald Reagan was “very special” and the Islamic State is “very bad.” He pledged to work “very closely with our allies in the Muslim world” and said that “we desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China.”
“War and aggression will not be my first instinct,” this new version of Trump declared. “I will seek a foreign policy that all Americans, whatever their party, can support – so important – and which our friends and allies will respect and totally welcome.”
Some were – or wanted to be – relieved by what they heard. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it “a very good foreign policy speech in which he laid out his vision for American engagement in the world.”
Engagement, eh? Trump began his speech by invoking “America first,” a phrase associated with opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II. “’America first’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” Trump said.
Perhaps the most unnerving promise Trump made was his determination to be erratic. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said. “We have to be unpredictable, and we have to be unpredictable starting now.”
On this vow, Trump has already made good – and that’s just the problem.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.