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Trump’s change in tone on Islam: Is it a pivot or a pause?

President Donald Trump speaks during the Arabic Islamic

President Donald Trump speaks during the Arabic Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Mandel Ngan

Trump swings for a grand salaam

The audience from 50 Muslim-majority countries in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday heard a different side of Donald Trump, reports Emily Ngo for Newsday.

As a candidate, Trump warned Islam presented an existential threat to the United States and said, “I think Islam hates us.” It was a rationale for the attempted “Muslim ban,” though it’s not called that any more.

The president now says the battle against terrorism by Islamic extremists is not a religious war.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations,” he said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people.”

He appealed to the Muslim world to stand with the United States against a common threat by denying extremists safe harbor, financial backing and social standing.

Trump said he was neither lecturing to the world nor telling anyone “how to live, who to be or how to worship,” but rather wanted to offer partnership.

With Trump, it’s risky to draw conclusions based on a single speech, and so it’s too soon to know whether Sunday’s address indicates a new attitude or a temporary shift for a particular audience.

Words for making friends

In the past, Trump denounced as soft political foes who would not use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”

But the phrase was absent from his speech — a victory for National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who reportedly agrees with those who deem that language counterproductive because terrorists are “un-Islamic.”

Trump did veer off his prepared remarks at one point, referring to “Islamic extremism” instead of “Islamist extremism.” He's still thin on specifics in how terrorism will be fought.

Politico reports a senior White House official told reporters that was an inadvertent slip-up because Trump was “an exhausted guy” on Day Two of his trip.

No reason was given for Trump later canceling a plan to host a Twitter forum for young adults. Daughter Ivanka pinch-hit for him.

The take-away: Then and now

When the Obamas visited Saudi Arabia in 2015, Trump groused on Twitter that Michelle had “insulted” their hosts by not wearing a head covering. Neither did Melania Trump, as it turned out, and the Saudis were fine with that.

The Riyadh trip is adding more chapters in a long and growing record of contradictions between Trump and his past words. See Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.

Pressure points

McMaster, on ABC’s “This Week,” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on “Fox News Sunday,” sought to explain Trump’s reported remark to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office that firing FBI Director James Comey had “taken off” the “great pressure” on him over the Russia investigation.

Tillerson said Trump was telling them, “I’m not going to let that distract from our efforts to see if we can engage with you, engage with Russia.” McMaster said the meaning was that Trump “feels as if he is hamstrung in his ability to work with Russia to find areas of cooperation because this has been obviously so much in the news.”

Trump also told the Russians that Comey was “a real nut job,” according to The New York Times.

Chock full o’ nut jobs

Getting called a “nut job” by Trump doesn’t make fired FBI Director James Comey unique. Others labeled as such by Trump in recent years include Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bernie Sanders, and conservative commentator Glenn Beck, writes The Washington Post. (Sanders’ response: “He might want to look into the mirror.”)

Other epithets used by Trump include “crazy,” “mentally sick,” “wacko.”

Trump should not be casting nuts at others, Comey’s dad told The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey. “I’m convinced that he’s nuts,” said J. Brien Comey, 86, a Republican. “I thought he belonged in an institution. He was crazy before he became president.”

Sen. John McCain said Sunday that he was “almost speechless” after seeing the reports that Trump used the “nut job” insult about the “highly respected and highly regarded” Comey. See David M. Schwartz’s roundup from the Sunday talk shows for Newsday.

Hastening Obamacare’s demise

As Trump declares Obamacare is failing, he may be pushing that along. The Trump administration has left insurers and state officials guessing on whether it will seek to cut off Affordable Care Act subsidies before gaining congressional passage of a replacement health care system.

Insurers say the uncertainty is driving up rates for 2018, The New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post said Trump’s first major budget proposal on Tuesday will include massive cuts to Medicaid — more than $800 billion over 10 years — and call for changes to anti-poverty programs that would give states new power to limit a range of benefits.

What else is happening

  • In a side meeting, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi praised Trump as “a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.” Trump said “I agree!” and accepted an invitation to visit Cairo. He also paid el-Sisi a compliment: “Love your shoes.”
  • The Ford company is laying off employees and shutting some SUV production despite Trump strutting over auto jobs. 
  • Trump's EPA is moving too slowly to kill climate change regulations, the head of the president's environtmental transition team told a conservative group. 
  • First son-in-law Jared Kushner seems to have retained 90 percent of his real estate holdings despite resigning from the family business and vowing a clear public-private divide, the Washington Post reports.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily ordered his cabinet ministers to attend the airport reception for Trump Monday after discovering that many planned to skip the event.
  • Tens of thousands of Haitians admitted to the United States after a 2010 earthquake devastated their homeland are waiting for a Trump administration decision on whether their “temporary protected status” will be extended beyond July, Newsday’s Victor Manuel Ramos reports.
  • A few dozen graduates and family members silently stood and walked out as Vice President Mike Pence began his address at Notre Dame’s commencement ceremony.
  • The House Intelligence Committee, investigating Russian election meddling, has questions for Michael Caputo, who served as a communications adviser to the Trump campaign and worked in Russia in the 1990s, The New York Times reported. Caputo, a protégé of Roger Stone, denies any collusion.
  • The White House has moved to block an official ethics inquiry into former lobbyists granted waivers to work in the administration, causing confusion in some agencies, the Times reports.
  • A CBS News Nation Tracker poll finds 63 percent of Americans favor a special prosecutor for the Russia investigation. Among strong Trump supporters, 81 percent agree with the president that the probe is a “witch hunt.”

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