Trump turns to foreign affairs in meetings with three heads of state

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President Donald Trump gives a thumb's up with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi (right) at the White House on April 3. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

President Donald Trump gives a thumb’s up with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi (right) at the White House on April 3. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

With some of his major domestic initiatives stalled in Congress or the courts, President Donald Trump turned to foreign policy this week and meetings at the White House with several foreign leaders taking the measure of his “America First” approach to world affairs.

In a meeting Monday with Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, Mr.Trump said the United States was “very much behind Egypt and the people of Egypt.”

The visit marked a significant shift for relations between the U.S. and Egypt. Former President Barack Obama declined to meet with Al-Sisi, who assumed office in 2013 after the Arab Spring protests dismantled the Mubarak regime and President Mohammed Morsi was ousted from power. Since then, watchdog organizations have accused Al-Sisi of human rights violations.

“Inviting al-Sisi for an official visit to Washington as tens of thousands of Egyptians rot in jail, and when torture is again the order of the day, is a strange way to build a stable strategic relationship,” Sarah Margon, the Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

In meeting with Trump, Al-Sisi became the first Egyptian head of state to visit the White House since 2009. But Trump also has meetings planned with foreign leaders who enjoy longstanding relationships with the U.S.

Trump is scheduled to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah II at the White House on Wednesday to discuss strategies to defeat ISIS. Fighting terrorism was also front and center in Trump’s meeting with Al-Sisi.

On Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel with Trump to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend. The meeting will highlight several points of contention between the two countries, including on climate change and security issues surrounding North Korea and the South China Sea, said Nicholas Hope, a senior scholar at the Stanford Center for International Development.

Xi’s trip to the U.S this week is about “getting the measure of President Trump,” said Elizabeth Economy, a senior Fellow and director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“In the eyes of most Chinese, Trump is calling the shots, and they want to know who is this man,” she said.

As a candidate, Trump took a tough stance against China on trade and other economic issues. He promised to label the country as a currency manipulator, a step his administration hasn’t taken so far.

Trump also waded into U.S.-China relations during his transition, when he broke from protocol by speaking with the president of Taiwan. The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Taiwan since recognizing the “One China” policy in 1979.

The call with Taiwan was one of several unconventional conversations Trump had with foreign leaders after he took office. Trump also abruptly ended a phone call in January with the prime minister of Australia, one of the United States’ closest allies.

Since then, the Trump administration has made several attempts to reach out to allies. Vice President Mike Pence pledged support for the European Union during a trip to Brussels in February. The same month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly traveled to Mexico to assure the country’s leaders that the U.S. remained a strong ally.

Xi will not be the first foreign leader to visit Mar-a-Lago. In February, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Florida estate.

Trump has also met with leaders from Britain, Ireland, Germany and Israel. British Prime Minister Theresa May was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after he took office. The pair met at the White House in late January to discuss trade and Britain’s plans for leaving the European Union.

Trump’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House last month came after Trump criticized her on the campaign trail; Trump once declared that she did not deserve to win Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2015.

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