ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — President Donald Trump in a new letter to African leaders says he “deeply respects” the people of Africa and that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will make an “extended visit” to the continent in March, his first in that role.
The letter is addressed to African leaders as they gather for an African Union summit this weekend in Ethiopia’s capital.
U.S. diplomats have scrambled for days to address shock and condemnation after Trump’s reported comparison of African nations to a dirty toilet. Trump has said he didn’t use such language, while others present say he did.
Many in Africa were taken aback by the comments after nearly a year of little attention by the Trump administration to the world’s second most populous continent. Concerns have been widespread over proposed deep cuts to U.S. foreign aid and a shift from humanitarian assistance to counterterrorism.
Trump’s letter, seen by The Associated Press and confirmed by two U.S. officials, says the U.S. “profoundly respects” the partnerships and values shared by the U.S. and Africans and that the president’s commitment to strong relationships with African nations is “firm.”
The letter offers Trump’s “deepest compliments” to the African leaders as they gather for Sunday’s summit of their 55-nation continental body. It also notes that U.S. soldiers are “fighting side by side” against extremism on the continent and that the U.S. is working to increase “free, fair and reciprocal trade” with African countries and partnering to “safeguard legal immigration.”
The letter gives no details on Tillerson’s upcoming visit. A State Department official said it was expected to include stops in four to six countries.
On Friday, Trump had a rare meeting with an African leader at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, calling Rwanda’s president and new African Union chair Paul Kagame a “friend.”
For his part, Kagame tweeted: “Had very good bilateral meeting with (at)realDonaldTrump!” The Rwandan government said Kagame had “observed that many of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa.”
Neither side referred to Trump’s vulgar comment.
But African leaders are expected to respond to Trump during Sunday’s summit. The U.S. will be represented at the gathering by Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard, the U.S. envoy to the AU, instead of the traditional high-level Washington delegation.
An AU spokeswoman has said the organization was “frankly alarmed” by Trump’s remark, and a number of African nations have spoken out or summoned U.S. diplomats for an explanation. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, however, countered by expressing his love for Trump and saying he should be praised for not mincing his words.
Dozens of former U.S. ambassadors to African countries wrote a letter to Trump expressing “deep concern” over his comments and asking him to reconsider.
The State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, in trying to calm things down, has tweeted that “the United States will continue to robustly, enthusiastically and forcefully engage” with African countries.