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Trump in letter to African leaders: Tillerson to make "extended visit"

State of the Union focus?

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 dated Thursday 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 Mr. Trump's reported comparison of African nations to a dirty toilet. Mr. 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 to Africa by the Trump administration. Concerns have been widespread over proposed deep cuts to U.S. foreign aid and a shift from humanitarian assistance to counterterrorism.

On Friday, Mr. Trump met with Rwanda's president and new African Union chair Paul Kagame at the World Economic Forum, calling Kagame a "friend."

The 55-nation continental body's summit is expected to respond to Mr. Trump's vulgar remark. An AU spokeswoman has said the organization was "frankly alarmed" by the comments, and a number of African nations have spoken out or summoned U.S. diplomats to explain. 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens to President Donald Trump
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens to President Donald Trump speaking to the media after the Congressional Republican Leadership retreat at Camp David, Maryland, U.S., January 6, 2018. YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

Mr. 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 Mr. Trump's "deepest compliments" to the African leaders as they gather. It 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. 

In Davos on Friday, Mr. Trump highlighted his "America First" policy in an address to the World Economic Forum, capping off a two-day visit to the annual gathering. 

"The world is witnessing the resurgence of a strong and prosperous America ... There has never been a better time to hire, to build, to invest and to grow in the United States," he said, according to excerpts. "America is open for business and we are competitive once again."

He said that he will always put America first, but that "America First does not mean America alone."  The president touted the U.S. economy and said that all countries should contribute "their fair share" when it comes to common security.  The president also highlighted the U.S. immigration system, which he said is "stuck in the past." 

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