By Anita Kumar and Vera Bergengruen
McClatchy Washington Bureau
Nearly three months into office, President Donald Trump has dropped much of his unorthodox campaign rhetoric on foreign policy and embraced a much more establishment view that in many ways doesn't differ much from his Democratic predecessor.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country he had once called an "economic enemy." He blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time after he'd long been accused of being too friendly with him. He labeled Syrian President Bashar Assad a "butcher," a week after ordering a military strike that he once criticized Barack Obama for contemplating.
And he said he was 100 percent behind NATO, the military alliance created in 1949 that he has previously called "obsolete."
After his news conference with the U.N. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House, even one-time critics couldn't help notice the change.
"What we may be seeing is a re-centering of this administration," Nicholas Burns, a former ambassador to NATO and undersecretary of state, said on MSNBC.
Perhaps most surprising was Trump's complete reversal regarding China, which he once accused of "raping" the United States and made the villain of much of his tough talk on trade during the campaign. He promised to heavily tax Chinese goods coming into the country. Less than two weeks ago, he called them the "world champions" of currency manipulation. Just last week, Trump braced for what he called "a difficult" meeting with Xi.
But on Wednesday, Trump had little but praise for China and its leader. He said that he and Xi "had a very good bonding" during their two days of meetings last week at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and he praised China for abstaining during a U.N. vote earlier in the day on a resolution on Syria that Russia vetoed.
"I think it's wonderful that they abstained," Trump said.
In a separate interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump also withdrew his pledge to label China a currency manipulator, a campaign promise that he said he would fulfill on his first day in office.
"They're not currency manipulators," Trump said, according to the Journal account.
Trump said he changed his mind for two reasons: because China had not manipulated its yuan for months and slapping the label on China could hurt negotiations with Xi on how to curb the nuclear threat from North Korea.
"President Xi wants to do the right thing," Trump said at his news conference. "I think we had a very good chemistry together."
Trump said he spoke with Xi Tuesday night ahead of the U.N. vote and suggested that Xi told him then that China would abstain on the Security Council resolution, which would have put the body on record as condemning last week's chemical attack had Russia not vetoed it.
"As you know, very few people expected that. And, no, I was not surprised that China did abstain," Trump said.
A senior administration official with knowledge of Xi's Florida visit agreed that Trump and Xi's talks last week had gone a long way toward smoothing U.S.-China relations. The official said Xi had a chance to meet Trump's extended family, including his grandchildren, which had "a big effect on their relationship."
Trump, who four years ago tweeted "We should stay the hell out of Syria," said his "attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much" since the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a Syrian town were at least 86 people died from what U.S. officials say was an attack with Sarin gas. After what White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called a "72-hour evolution," Trump ordered U.S. forces to fire a barrage of 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the attack.
The cruise missile barrage came just days after both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley signaled that the Trump administration was open to Assad staying in power. In the days since, Trump administration commentary on Syria sounded much like that of the Obama administration, which called for Assad to step down and for Russia to drop its support.
In Moscow Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed the Trump administration's foreign policy as "ambiguous and contradictory" while NATO's Stoltenberg praised it. "The very strong and clear message from President Trump has been very helpful," Stoltenberg said.
Trump also changed his tune on NATO after rattling members of the 28-member military alliance by calling it "obsolete," and threatening to tell countries that don't spend at least 2 percent of their economic output on defense "Congratulations, you'll be defending yourself."
On Wednesday, the president was back to the usual lines of his predecessors, reaffirming his commitment to the alliance and "the enduring values that we proudly share."
Trump praised the "very productive discussion" with Stoltenberg about what NATO can do in the fight against terrorism.
"I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete," he said about the alliance.
Even through allegations of Russian cyberhacking and election manipulation, until recently Trump steadfastly advocated for warmer relations with Russia and expressed admiration for Putin's leadership.
"Great move on delay (by Putin) _ I always knew he was very smart!" he tweeted in December, after the Russian president decided not to expel U.S. diplomats in response to Obama's sanctions after alleged cyberattacks.
"Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only 'stupid' people, or fools, would think that it is bad!" he tweeted a few weeks before his inauguration. "When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!"
By Wednesday, U.S.-Russia relations seemed to be in a deep freeze.
"One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved but has rather deteriorated," Putin said in an interview on Russian television on Wednesday.
"Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all," he said at Wednesday's news conference, echoing remarks made by Tillerson in Moscow. "We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia."