Trump's first foreign trip: 5 takeaways

Focus at home remains on Russia

TAORMINA, Italy (CNN) - President Donald Trump on Saturday concluded a nine-day swing through the Middle East and Europe that marked his first foreign travel as president -- a significant milestone for a head of state also considered the leader of the free world.

Trump's first foray on the international stage saw him engage in a series of powerhouse diplomatic sessions in which he touched on the most pressing global issues: from terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the state of U.S. alliances and the global economy.

He returns to Washington now to find the U.S. capital much the same as he left it -- engulfed in the latest revelations about the federal investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russia and with questions about the future of his presidency still swirling.

What's less clear is how Trump will confront those issues with the fresh perspective of his foreign travels, if at all.

Here are 5 takeaways of his first foreign trip:

1. Trump can't escape the Russia controversy, no matter how far he travels

In the week leading up to Trump's first foreign trip, the White House was overwhelmed with a series of bombshell reports that raised more questions about Trump and his campaign associates' ties to Russia.

The trip, aides hoped at the time, would give them a chance to reset the narrative, shifting the conversation away from talk of Russian ties and federal investigations and toward a series of carefully crafted speeches and images that would define Trump's first official overseas expedition.

But as Air Force One lifted off, it became clear that wouldn't be the case.

The trip did produce a series of headlines that allowed the White House to reclaim some control of the narrative, but the drumbeat of allegations back home continued to dog Trump abroad.

While the first half of the week saw leaders in Saudi Arabia and Israel greet Trump with open arms, Trump's arrival in Europe resurfaced questions about the president's position toward Russia and drew attention again to the federal investigation in Washington.

Trump failed to reassure European leaders about his commitment to combating Russian aggression with his remarks at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and hours later, as he landed in Sicily for the G7, news broke that the FBI was now looking into his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner's contacts with Russian officials.

The incessant nature of the Russia storyline kept Trump far away from the probing questions of reporters traveling with him on the foreign trip, with the president declining to hold a news conference, a highly unusual move for a president traveling abroad.

2. Terrorism still Trump's core issue

Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, gave Trump a chance to square U.S. government policy with the vitriol of his campaign on Islam and terrorism.

In a major speech on his second day in Riyadh to leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries, the President attempted to tone down his rhetoric and took his first major step toward attempting to unite the Muslim world in common cause against terrorism.

Rather than reiterating calls for banning Muslims from the United States or arguing as he did on the campaign that "Islam hates us," Trump sought to make clear that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, which he praised as "one of the world's great faiths."

Senior Trump administration officials said that the change in rhetoric wasn't a softening of his stance, instead pointing to Trump's direct call for Muslim leaders to bear more responsibility for the plight of Islamist extremism.

Trump, indeed, urged Muslim leaders to "honestly (confront) the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds" and redouble their counterterrorism efforts, calling on them to carry their "part of the burden" of fighting terrorism.

3. 'America First' at work

Trump's speech in Riyadh also marked one of several attempts by the president to implement his "America First" campaign rhetoric, particularly his calls for other countries to spend more money on defense and take more active security roles to reduce dependence on the U.S. military.

In Saudi Arabia, Trump called on the leaders of Muslim countries to shoulder more of the weight of the fight against terrorist groups like ISIS -- matching his calls on the campaign for Muslim countries to shoulder more of the financial and military burden of the fight against the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

Trump also touted the $110 billion arms deal he inked with Saudi Arabia as enabling the kingdom to shoulder more of its security needs.

And in Brussels, Trump chided assembled leaders of NATO allies for not spending enough on defense costs and urged them to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, as outlined in the alliance's charter.

Those calls had mixed results. In Saudi Arabia, Arab leaders praised Trump's calls for a fiercer fight against terrorism -- and welcomed the quickly vanishing human rights conditions on arms deals -- but made no firm commitments about increasing their military effort in the fight against ISIS.

And in Brussels, NATO leaders chafed at Trump's lecture, which did not acknowledge member states' recent increases in military spending nor did it include a reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the alliance's mutual defense pledge, in light of Trump's disparaging comments about the alliance during his campaign.

4. US alliance with Gulf states reaffirmed -- and human rights take a backseat

Trump's trip to Saudi Arabia and his meetings with a slew of Middle Eastern leaders served to firmly mark the return to a foreign policy centered on alliances with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states and away from a rapprochement with Iran.

To the delight of his hosts, Trump railed against Iran in Saudi Arabia and promised to work closely with partners in the region to combat the cloak of Iranian influence spreading throughout the Middle East. He even signaled that the Iranian threat could be a boon for Middle East peace, repeatedly signaling that Arab countries might soon align more publicly with Israel, which also feels threatened by Iran.

But in his lofty praise of the Saudi royal family, through his numerous meetings with Arab authoritarians and in his speech to the assembled leaders, Trump did not raise human rights issues, instead promising "we are not here to lecture" -- delivering a realpolitik view of U.S. alliances.

A senior White House official insisted that Trump did raise human rights issues, particularly women's rights, in his meetings with Saudi leaders and others. But the lack of a public voice on the issue signaled a change in U.S. policy, which has preserved partnerships while also speaking vocally about the need for human rights reforms.

5. Trump still finding footing on the world stage

Trump's first venture abroad as president also revealed that he is still very much finding his footing on the world stage. On a trip where he spoke far less than he was seen, the president's body language often spoke for him.

In Saudi Arabia, the first stop on the tour, Trump was at ease, admiring the king's welcome of a spectacle the actual king of Saudi Arabia had put on for him. In Israel, he asked the Israeli prime minister at one point "what's the protocol?" before standing for a photo. In both countries, where the hosts showered Trump with flattery and warmth, Trump played the role of gracious guest.

But his visit grew more complicated as he arrived in Europe, where he joined heads of state -- many wary of his presidency -- in groups and where the welcome was far more muted.

There, he berated members of the NATO alliance and aggressively jostled the prime minister of miniscule Montenegro to get to the front of a photo line, straightening his jacket with emphasis as he landed on his mark.

Trump's traditional power dynamics were once again at play in a forceful arm-jerking handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 -- who hours earlier had gritted his teeth to deliver his own stiff handshake. In group photos, Trump towered above most leaders and tilted his chin upward in pride as he walked among his counterparts.

But the confidence Trump projected in public during the trip may have belied the pressure he faced from his counterparts in private.

Trump often found himself the odd one out on major issues in his meetings with world leaders at the European forums. At the G7 in particular, his counterparts sought to sway him on climate change, free trade, Russia and other issues.

Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, said Trump wanted to hear out his counterparts' arguments for why he should stay in the landmark Paris climate accord.

"He feels much more knowledgeable on the topic today," Cohn said as the first day of G7 meetings wrapped. "He came here to learn. He came here to get smarter. He came to get world leaders' views."

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