Media Buzz

President and Pope: Why Trump's foreign trip is surprising his critics

Howard Kurtz

President Trump’s meeting with Pope Francis seemed to capture not just the success he’s having on this foreign trip, but the progress he’s made since he and the pontiff were at odds during the campaign.

The “honor of a lifetime,” Trump tweeted.

Now it’s true the Pope looked stern in the initial photo op with Trump and his family, but things appeared to warm up, despite the fact that, as the New York Times put it, the two men “symbolize starkly different views of the world.”

The Vatican visit yesterday also capped a Trump tour involving the world’s three great monotheistic religions, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Israel.

The pundits initially viewed the nine-day journey as an attempted distraction from their preferred story, the Russia investigation. But there is a growing recognition that this non-politician has handled himself well on the world stage and that a White House usually depicted as chaotic managed to meticulously plan the visit.

There was a single misstep, when Trump insisted with Bibi Netanyahu that he hadn’t told Russian diplomats about Israel providing classified intelligence—thus confirming it—but the rest of the trip has gone smoothly.

Just look at the coverage:

Wall Street Journal: “Trump Tells Pope Francis: ‘I Won’t Forget What You Said.’”

Politico: “Trump Ditches His Feud in Gracious Visit with Pope.”

Perhaps more important was this sidebar: “How Trump Aides Pulled Off Middle East Visit.” (Spoiler: Lots of planning.)

Washington Post: “The pair seemed to set aside their differences from last year’s campaign, with Trump appearing both presidential and deferential, while the pope, smiling slightly, seemed to be visually appraising him.”

None of this disguises the differences between the two leaders. It was telling that Trump gave the Pope books by Martin Luther King while Francis gave him his encyclical on the environment.

It was a little more than a year ago that the Pope took a swipe at candidate Trump’s proposals on building a border wall and deporting illegal immigrants. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the pontiff said.

Trump’s rejoinder: “If and when the Vatican is attacked, the Pope would only wish and have prayed that Donald Trump would have been elected president.”

Seems like eons ago.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza agrees that Trump has had a good trip, but says that’s because aides constructed “an almost-totally controlled environment with very little free time for Trump.” Even his seven tweets were “the sort of cookie-cutter stuff you see from the average politician.” And with Melania, Ivanka and Jared along, “Trump does best -- and has through his entire adult life -- when he is surrounded by the cocoon of his family.”

No one is saying that Trump, back in Washington, is suddenly going to turn into a highly scripted character. But don’t all administrations intensely plan presidential trips?

In the end, it doesn’t matter all that much whether Trump gets along with the Pope, as long as they can work together—say, on stopping Christian persecution—where there are common interests. The same goes for his relationship with King Salman, or Mahmoud Abbas, or Enrique Nieto Pena.

Personal diplomacy matters, but leaders ultimately act in the self-interest of their countries. And if this visit to the Vatican, the Western Wall and elsewhere helped Trump get off to a good start, then we are blessed.

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.