President-elect Trump suggests Berlin market attack affirms plan to bar Muslims

US President-elect Donald Trump pauses as he talks to members of the media after a meeting with Pentagon officials at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida on Dec 21, 2016.
US President-elect Donald Trump pauses as he talks to members of the media after a meeting with Pentagon officials at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida on Dec 21, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President-elect Donald Trump seemed to suggest on Wednesday (Dec 21) that the deadly truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin vindicated his proposal during the presidential campaign to bar Muslims from entering the United States.

"You know my plans," Mr Trump said to reporters who asked whether the attack on Monday, in which a Tunisian was being sought, would cause him to re-evaluate his proposals to create a Muslim registry or to stop Muslim immigration to the United States.

"All along, I've been proven to be right. One hundred per cent correct," he said.

It was not clear whether Mr Trump was reaffirming his much-criticised call for a wholesale ban on Muslim immigration or his subsequent clarification that he would stop only those entering from countries with a history of Islamic extremism.

As with many of his pronouncements since his election last month, the remarks, delivered at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, were cryptic and left room for broad interpretation.

But hours later, one of his advisers said he was only restating his most recent position.

"President-elect Trump has been clear that we will suspend admission of those from countries with high terrorism rates and apply a strict vetting procedure for those seeking entry in order to protect American lives," said Mr Jason Miller, the communications director for the transition. "This might upset those with their heads stuck in the politically correct sand, but nothing is more important than keeping our people safe."

It was the latest confusing turn in Mr Trump's positions on major issues since the election. In Twitter posts and comments over the last week, he has pledged to create "safe zones" in Syria, paid for by Persian Gulf nations; accused China of an "unprecedented act" in seizing a Navy underwater drone in the South China Sea; and then, after the Pentagon and China negotiated the drone's return, suggested that the United States should "let them keep it!"

The series of scattershot remarks has further unsettled a turbulent period in US foreign policy. It underscores Mr Trump's challenge in fashioning an approach to the problems he will inherit in Asia, Europe and the Middle East - especially working with a team that consists of retired generals and an oil executive, few of whom have experience in the daily cascade of crises that confront every White House.

"We know he's got some instincts and predilections, but there is no coherent Trump foreign-policy doctrine, and we're not likely to see one," said Eliot A. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University who worked for President George W. Bush and has been a vocal critic of Mr Trump.

"They're in the fun phase now," Prof Cohen added, "but they're in for a whole bunch of rude awakenings."

One area where Mr Trump and his advisers have been unswerving is their repeated denunciation of "radical Islamic terrorism." But his position on barring Muslim immigrants has gone through various modifications since December 2015, when he first called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

Mr Philip D. Zelikow, who served in the administrations of both Presidents Bush and now teaches at the University of Virginia, said there were three guiding themes in Mr Trump's foreign policy: economic nationalism, a war against "radical Islamic terrorism," and a "deliberate aloofness" toward the actions of other countries - for example, Russia.

"Beyond that," Mr Zelikow said, "there is an ambient prickliness. We could end up picking fights with three-quarters of the world."

On Wednesday, Mr Trump and his national security adviser Michael T. Flynn met with a delegation of generals and admirals from the Pentagon's joint staff at the president-elect's Palm Beach club.

A day earlier, Mr Flynn met in Washington with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Trump's nominees for secretary of defence, General James N. Mattis; secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson; and secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly.

The military officers at the meeting focus mostly on the acquisition of equipment, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose costs Trump recently complained had spiraled "out of control." This suggests that his first major Pentagon briefing was about hardware and budgets, not military operations.

Advisers to Mr Trump did not discuss the meetings or say how he planned to respond to the attack in Germany, as well as ones in Turkey and Switzerland.

In a Twitter post on Monday, the president-elect said that terrorism was "getting worse" and that "the civilised world must change thinking!"