WASHINGTON — Given his current political fortunes, if President Donald Trump’s crucial first foreign trip passes off without a disaster, it will be considered a success.
The President embarks on a journey Friday to Saudi Arabia, Israel and global summits in Italy and Belgium, after one of the most tumultuous and damaging weeks any President has had to endure.
The appointment of a special counsel to investigate whether there was any collusion between Trump aides and the Kremlin’s election hacking effort capped a stunning rush of events unleashed by the President’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who declined Trump’s request to shield former national security adviser Michael Flynn in the Russia probe, The New York Times first reported and CNN confirmed.
It was a week that eventually could put Trump’s entire presidency in jeopardy and has left his White House dispirited, confused and at odds with itself.
Foreign trips, with their long flights, cumulative jet lag, high stakes and confined conditions can easily exacerbate tensions within White House teams, and the Trump camp is the most divided and acrimony-riddled West Wing in recent memory.
In fact, for some senior officials who have lost the President’s confidence, the tour may be a final chance to save their jobs.
“It’s kind of do-or-die,” said one official, referring both to the staff and stakes for the President.
As a result, Trump will head into his trip, an ambitious first stride across the global stage, pursued by a political maelstrom at home and facing questions from foreign leaders about the viability of his government.
“One question everyone outside the United States has, and are not likely to ask the President, is what is his actual political strength relative to the divisions with Congress, the problems within his own party?” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Can he move forward with his own agenda? That will certainly be a question as he visits any country overseas.”
The President’s debut foreign tour was always going to mark a significant test, given the challenging itinerary and his own complete lack of diplomatic experience. Foreign trips are a grueling proposition for even the most seasoned commander in chief — with their tedious summits and official dinners, stifling protocol and on-camera moments ripe for a misstep that can cause a diplomatic incident or ignite a political firestorm.
But the chaos that has raged around Trump since he took office, the difficulty his press team has in keeping up with his contradictory statements and tweets and his sheer unpredictability make this tour even more of a high-wire act.
Then there is the treacherous nature of the issues he must confront, from Middle Eastern power politics, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the future of NATO which he savaged on the campaign trail and European concern about the impact of his protectionist trade policies.
In addition, the sheer logistical challenge meanwhile of moving a President around the world is enormous. There is immense pressure on his advance teams of young, inexperienced staffers who negotiate the stagecraft of Trump’s encounters with foreign leaders and prepare agendas of meetings.
Any incident or comment that offends a host or appears to suggest that Trump is not up to the job or out of his depth could exacerbate concerns about his suitability for the Presidency that have been frequently raised during his four months in office. This week, he only further fueled concerns when The Washington Post first reported he spilled top secret intelligence in an Oval Office meeting with a Russian delegation.
And just because Trump is away from the United States, the barrage of blockbuster news stories about his administration is unlikely to stop, meaning that his harried staff will be forced to come up with crisis management strategies from many time zones away from the White House.
Trump’s reported griping about the length of his trip, and the fact that he has been severely distracted during his preparation time this week by the Russia storm, raises the stakes even more.
“I think he needs to keep his mind on what is going to be a very important trip,” said former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat, on CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday. “He represents the United States, even if we are setting kind of a low bar for this trip — if he doesn’t make mistakes. I hope that there is not one single tweet about anything in the nine days he is gone.”
If the President wants to, he can use the trip as a way to break out of a debilitating period for his administration, to try to win some positive headlines for a change and even to engineer a morale boost for himself.
After all, his fellow foreign leaders are deeply curious about his agenda and, in Saudi Arabia and Israel in particular, are likely to want to make a positive impression. Trump is a collegial character who has spent extended time socializing with some visiting foreign leaders so he might actually enjoy the interaction. However, as a noted homebody, he might find it more difficult to relax in a foreign capital than at his Mar-a-Lago resort where he has hosted several foreign dignitaries.
Trump’s aides acknowledge the trip will not erase the political turmoil back home. But they believe the seriousness of the issues Trump will confront can help realign the President. No one can guarantee he is ready to move on from blasting the Russia probe.
World leaders, however, are less likely to be interested in the details of Trump’s political woes than they are keen to gauge the impact of his “America First” policies on their nations, regions and alliances.
In Europe especially, they want to know whether Trump will pull out of the Paris climate accord and want to test his true feelings for Russia, which is seen as a threat in much of Europe.
As soon Trump leaves Washington he will be heading for the deep end of global geopolitics. Most US presidents get their feet wet with a quick, easy trip to Canada or Mexico. Not Trump, though in truth his hostility to the North America Free Trade Agreement would have made either of those stops challenging.
Instead, his first steps on foreign soil as President will pitch him into the bear pit of Middle Eastern politics in the world’s most war-ravaged region, where sectarian tensions seethe and leaders have to master the law of the political jungle simply to survive.
Still, Trump does have one advantage. US allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia often expressed deep dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, and outreach to Iran, capped by the controversial nuclear deal.
They are pre-disposed to the reset that Trump says he represents.
“The President is going to the Middle East to let our friends know we are back and to let our enemies know we are back,” said David Urban, who ran the President’s successful Pennsylvania campaign and worked with his transition team, on CNN.
Trump is widely expected to unveil a massive arms deal in Saudi Arabia, and will huddle with leaders of Muslim-majority nations to discuss how to respond to Iran’s power projection in the region. He’s also likely to complain about the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, though his administration has certified that Tehran is sticking to the terms of the agreement.
Speech about Islam
But the most striking moment of Trump’s visit to the kingdom will be his speech about Islam, given his critical campaign rhetoric and attempt to impose a temporary entry ban on residents of a number of Muslim nations soon after taking office.
“He will develop a strong, respectful message that the United States and the entire civilized world expects our Muslim allies to take a strong stand against radical Islamist ideology, an ideology that uses a perverted interpretation of religion to justify crimes against all humanity,” said National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
“He will call for Muslim leaders to promote a peaceful vision of Islam,” he said.
The speech is a high-risk, high-reward opportunity, but is difficult to get right, said Jonathan Finer, who served as director of policy planning for former secretary of state John Kerry.
“This is a President who has surrounded himself with advisers who have let’s just say not the most nuanced views of Islam,” Finer told CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
“The notion that the President of the United States is going to go to one of the cultural and religious centers of the region and explain the proper role of Islam in the world in Saudi Arabia, I think really risks setting some off notes,” he said.
From Saudi Arabia, Trump will move on to Israel, where he will have meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and meet Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank. Trump has also decided not to announce during his trip that he will move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as he vowed to do during the campaign. US officials had warned that acting now could end the President’s hopes of reigniting the Middle East peace process.
That seems a long-shot anyway. Despite surprisingly hopeful rhetoric from both Israel and the Palestinians, political conditions do not suggest either side is likely to make the painful concessions needed to forge peace.
When Trump lands in Europe he will be greeted with some suspicion, given his critical rhetoric about NATO, and antipathy towards the European Union displayed by some of his political advisers.
He will make a trip to Rome for an audience with Pope Francis, attend the NATO summit in Brussels and the G-7 summit of developed nations in Sicily.