WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States President Donald Trump vowed on Saturday (Jan 28) to improve floundering ties with Russia, while also reassuring close US allies he supports Nato.
Amid growing international alarm over Trump’s halt to refugees and travellers from Muslim countries, French President Francois Hollande warned of the “economic and political consequences” of the American leader’s protectionist stance.
The comments came one day after Trump signed a sweeping executive order to suspend the arrival of refugees for at least 120 days and bars visas for travellers from seven Muslim majority countries for the next three months.
Trump’s friendly stance toward Putin, whom France and Germany both accuse of seeking to undermine Western unity, is being scrutinised since he won the US election in November.
The White House hailed the call with Putin as a “significant start” to better US-Russia ties, while the Kremlin said the pair agreed to develop relations “as equals” and to establish “real coordination” against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.
Trump took office last week with US-Russia relations at new Cold War-level lows amid accusations by American intelligence agencies that the Kremlin hacked Democratic Party emails as part of a pro-Trump campaign to influence November’s election.
The new Republican president – who has raised the prospect of easing sanctions imposed against Russia after its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 – has cast doubt on whether Russia meddled in the election.
In a flurry of calls that began early in the morning and rounded out an already frantically paced week, Trump spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin, Hollande and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
The conversations gave the US president an early opportunity to explain new policies that have baffled and unnerved much of the rest of the world – particularly his order to temporarily halt all refugee arrivals and those of travellers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
European leaders are also concerned about Trump’s virulent criticism of Nato – he has dubbed the transatlantic military alliance “obsolete” – at a time when it stands as the main defence against Putin.
But in his call with Merkel, Trump agreed on Nato’s “fundamental importance,” the White House said.
“The leaders recognised that Nato must be capable of confronting 21st century threats and that our common defence requires appropriate investment in military capabilities to ensure all allies are contributing their fair share to our collective security,” it added.
The United States provides significant funding to Nato, and Trump has called on other member nations to step up their contributions.
Trump’s pronouncement on Muslim immigration makes good on one of his most controversial campaign promises to subject travellers from Islamic countries to “extreme vetting,” which he declared would make America safe from “radical Islamic terrorists.”
“It’s working out very nicely. You see it at the airports, you see it all over,” Trump told reporters, after travellers from those countries were stopped from boarding US-bound planes, triggering angry protests.
“We’re going to have a very, very strict ban and we’re going to have extreme vetting which we should have had in this country for many years.”
Hundreds of people protested at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, chanting “Let them in, let them in!”
The new protocols specifically bar Syrian refugees from the United States indefinitely, or until the president himself decides that they no longer pose a threat.
US authorities wasted no time implementing Trump’s order, detaining travellers arriving at American airports within hours of the measures being signed.
The New York Times reported that airport officials as early as Friday night began detaining travellers, some of whom were already aboard their flights when Trump announced his executive order.
The order faced its first lawsuit, signalling a tough battle ahead in US courts.
The legal challenge was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups after two Iraqi men were detained late Friday at JFK.
One of the men, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked for the US government in Iraq for 10 years.
“America is the greatest nation, the greatest people in the world,” Darweesh said after his release.
Mark Doss, a supervising attorney at the International Refugee Project at the Urban Justice Center, said Darweesh’s detention and release showed the new policy was being implemented “with no guidance.”
Immigration advocacy groups issued an appeal for demonstrations at JFK airport, which spread rapidly over social media.
The ban has also triggered a political backlash.
“To my colleagues: don’t ever again lecture me on American moral leadership if you chose to be silent today,” Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, tweeted late Friday.
His tweet was accompanied by the now iconic photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy whose body was washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015 after a failed attempt to flee Syria’s brutal war to join relatives in Canada.
International groups and civil liberties organisations have roundly condemned Trump’s orders.
“'Extreme vetting' is just a euphemism for discriminating against Muslims,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Romero said Trump’s order breached the US constitution’s ban on religious discrimination by choosing countries with Muslim majorities for tougher treatment.
Many foreign leaders said they were aghast over the new US policy.
Iran answered in kind by saying it would ban Americans from entering the country, calling Trump’s action insulting.
But the US leader did get backing from Czech President Milos Zeman, who praised him for being “concerned with the safety of his citizens.”