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World & Nation

Manchester attack makes terrorism the focus of Trump’s NATO meeting

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President Trump meets Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday.
(Tribune News Service)

The deadly suicide bombing in Britain and threats of more attacks thrust counter-terrorism to the top of President Trump’s agenda for talks with NATO leaders here on Thursday, buttressing his bid to enlist the alliance he had called obsolete to join the fight against Islamic State.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, anticipating the alliance meetings, told reporters flying with the president to Brussels from Rome, where Trump met Pope Francis earlier Wednesday, that Monday’s attack in England “is going to strengthen the resolve in this fight against terrorism.”

Tillerson stopped short of predicting that NATO would agree to formally join the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but said it “would be a really important step” if the alliance did so.

The attack, which killed 22 people at a pop concert and was said to be the work of a 22-year-old British man whose family is from Libya, also figured in Trump’s brief meeting with the pope at the Vatican.

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Although the White House had said the president and the pontiff would discuss human trafficking and religious freedom, they ended up having “pretty extensive conversations around extreme terrorist threats and extremism, radicalization of young people,” Tillerson said. “That’s one of the reasons the meeting went long.”

On another issue important to Francis, the Vatican secretary of State separately urged Trump to not abandon the global accord to address climate change that was reached in Paris in 2015. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, said he and the president remained noncommittal and told the papal envoy, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, that the United States must weigh the cost to its economy and job creation of environmental actions to avert global warming.

The president will decide whether to revoke the Paris accord, as he promised during his campaign, “after we get home,” Tillerson said.

Trump returned to the subjects of terrorism and the Manchester attack, for which the militant group Islamic State has claimed responsibility, soon after his arrival in Belgium and his introduction to its king and prime minister.

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”We are fighting very hard, doing very well under our generals, making tremendous progress,” Trump said. “But when you see something like what happened a few days ago, you realize how important it is to win this fight. And we will win this fight.”

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization meetings will be Trump’s debut before the nearly 70-year-old alliance. Skeptical members are eager to assess whether he has warmed to the organization after his repeated criticisms during his campaign, when he suggested that the United States, under a Trump administration, might not come to the defense of NATO allies.

Tillerson said Trump will press his demand that allied countries spend more on their mutual defense. “You can expect the president to be very tough on them,” he told reporters.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, at a briefing Wednesday, indicated the organization was poised to formally join the effort against Islamic State. One of the main topics would be “stepping up NATO’s contribution to the fight against terrorism,” he said, adding that the summit “will demonstrate NATO’s ability to change as the world changes.”

“NATO has the expertise, partnerships and staying power to make a real difference,” Stoltenberg said.

In Brussels, which bears the scars of a series of terrorist attacks last year, Trump will take part in ceremonies inaugurating NATO’s new facilities — a role that would have been hard to imagine when he was a candidate. ​​​​​He will unveil a piece of wreckage from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, which prompted NATO’s first invocation of its mutual defense agreement.

The president will not be announcing a decision on increasing troops in Afghanistan, as some had speculated he might during this first foreign trip. His national security team continues to review Afghan policy, Tillerson said, and will not make a recommendation to Trump for at least a couple of weeks.

For a ​president who puts a premium on personal encounters, and sizing up people, his meeting with the pope appeared to have left him impressed. Their one-on-one meeting was “fantastic,” Trump told reporters, adding, “He is something.” Later on Twitter he called it the “honor of a lifetime.”

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The two met privately in Francis’ study at the Apostolic Palace for half an hour, slightly longer than was typical for papal audiences with visiting dignitaries, but shorter than the roughly 50-minute meeting between President Obama and Francis in 2014.

Obama and the Argentine pope had quickly made common cause both in combating climate change and advocating for the poor, and Francis was a key mediator in 2015 in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

For Trump and Francis, however, their meeting was an icebreaker after their public spat during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Francis called Trump’s proposed border fence “not Christian” and Trump dismissed the pope’s put-down as “disgraceful.”

Still, in photos of an initial meeting, Francis seemed to scowl while Trump grinned broadly. Observers described the mood as stiff, with Francis stone-faced, until he and the president exchanged gifts.

Trump gave Francis, who is said to appreciate simple gifts, a custom-bound first-edition set of the writings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a handmade display case. The White House noted that Francis had quoted the civil rights leader during an address to a joint session of Congress in 2015 — the first by a pope. Francis gave the president a large medal by a Roman artist featuring an olive branch, a symbol of peace.

“We can use peace,” the president responded.

Also among Francis’ gifts was one that seemed to symbolize his hope for Trump’s political conversion: a copy of three papal encyclicals including Laudato Si, which advocates a moral case for addressing climate change.

“I signed it personally for you,” Francis said.

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michael.memoli@latimes.com

For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.

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