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Trump Revises Rhetoric On Islamic Terrorism In Remarks With Middle East Allies


President Trump's Middle East policy has been front and center this week. He has hosted two leaders who are key U.S. allies, the king of Jordan and the president of Egypt. And in Trump's public remarks with those leaders, we noticed something was missing - the term radical Islamic terrorism. Here to talk about that is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hi.


SIEGEL: This phrase was a big Trump applause line during the campaign. For example, here's what he said at a rally last September. He talked about protecting the U.S. and other countries from...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: From radical Islamic terrorism, a word and a phrase that President Obama and Hillary Clinton just refuse to use. And unless you're going to use it and unless you're going to say it, you're never, ever going to be able to do anything about it.

SIEGEL: And, Greg, Donald Trump and other Republicans said that over and over and over again throughout the campaign.

MYRE: Hugely effective during the campaign, but it's really not a great line if you're trying to work very closely with U.S. allies. They, I think, are very offended by this notion that somehow the radicals may be more Islamic than moderate, mainstream Muslims or that somehow it's lumping all Muslims together. And that's why Obama and Clinton didn't use that term. They preferred the term violent extremism, and they would talk more about human rights and democracy and things like this. And as you said, they just got hammered time and again by Trump and other critics during the campaign.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I got an earful about this in Jordan a couple of years ago about how important the Jordanians said it was not to say radical Islam or Islamic terrorism or extremism. So let's now listen to President Trump in the Rose Garden yesterday with Jordan's King Abdullah.


TRUMP: King Abdullah and I also discussed measures to combat the evil, an ideology that inspires ISIS and plagues our planet.

SIEGEL: No mention of radical Islamic terrorism. How should we interpret that change in tone?

MYRE: Perhaps he got the same memo that you did, Robert, an earful from the king. We don't know. But with that pause, you can almost hear him editing himself of like I need to be careful about the phrase I'm using here. And I think this is part of the reality of being president. He has some allies that are very important. Jordan, one of the longest-standing U.S. allies in the region, and I think he wanted to be very careful and very respectful.

SIEGEL: Can you link President Trump's change in rhetoric, at least for now or his choice of words, with a change in policy? That is, he also said yesterday his attitude towards Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, had, in his words, changed very much after the apparent chemical weapons attack this week.

MYRE: Yeah, this seemed very telling because Trump's message has been all about defeating ISIS and basically playing down, if not ignoring altogether, other things, and that includes the complication of what happens with President Assad in Syria, even if you do defeat ISIS. But this chemical weapon attack apparently did have some impact on his thinking. Now, this is nothing new. This is something we had back in 2013, a terrible attack with more than a thousand people killed. So we've seen this kind of scenario play out in the Syrian war. But this time, he said it made a difference, and I think that's because of where he's sitting these days.

SIEGEL: Well, from Trump's comments on Syria and his getting in line more with the Jordanians on the subject of radical Islamic terrorism, what can we make of all this about a broader approach to the Middle East by the new administration?

MYRE: Trump is very much reaching out to the traditional U.S. allies, the Sunni states of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. All three of the leaders have been to the White House, or at least in the Saudi case, the deputy crown prince. And this is, in a sense, reversing what Obama did. Obama had reached out, or at least tried to do this deal, the nuclear deal that he did with Iran, and made many efforts along those lines. And these Sunni nations felt a little bit nudged to the side. Trump is going back to this older model, going back to the time really before Obama where these countries were the pillars of the U.S. plan in the Middle East.

SIEGEL: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.