Trump Heads Abroad With Unwanted Baggage of Troubles at HomeBy and
Challenge for leader with little experience in foreign affairs
Successes early in tour his best opportunity to quiet doubts
Donald Trump departed Friday for his first foreign trip as president with his White House engulfed in crisis and little prospect for a break from the drama disrupting his agenda.
His eight-day odyssey across the Mideast and Europe is packed with crucial sit-downs with key allies. Saudi King Salman. Pope Francis. Newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Yet each of those meetings will be shadowed by Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey.
That controversy -- along with the ongoing probe of possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia -- risks interrupting any moment of the trip. It adds to a big challenge for a president who had no experience in foreign affairs prior to his election and who has already suffered repeated stumbles in encounters with other leaders.
The Comey controversy showed no sign of abating. The New York Times reported shortly after Air Force One departed for Saudi Arabia that Trump had bragged about firing Comey to two Russian diplomats in an Oval Office meeting the next day, calling the FBI director a “nut job” and saying that his removal had relieved pressure over the Russia investigation. The Washington Post reported at about the same time that federal law enforcement officials had identified a senior White House adviser close to the president as a person of interest in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
If Trump and his team score some early policy successes on the first leg of the trip, they may gain some respite from their domestic troubles. It would offer a sort of lifeline: a chance for Trump to arrest rising anxiety about his capacity to fill the role as leader of the free world.
"The bigger question that’s begun to arise is his fitness for the presidency, to put it bluntly; whether he is up to the job," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If he performs well on this trip, it begins to quiet or answer this question. If he performs poorly, it will add fuel to the fire."
Though most foreign governments closely monitor U.S. politics, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters the controversy surrounding Trump isn’t likely to affect his dealings abroad.
“The people in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what’s happening domestically here,” Tillerson said.
Trump’s trip is also a key test for his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, whom Trump has entrusted with much of his Mideast portfolio and the trip’s planning. He will shoulder the blame if the trip goes awry, one person familiar with their thinking said.
"The real risk will come in the unscripted moments," said Haass, who served in the State Department under former President George W. Bush.
The travel may also help shape Trump’s attitude toward other key aides traveling with him who have been a source of frustration to the embattled president: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategistSteve Bannon, press secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Trump’s wife Melania and daughter Ivanka will accompany him for portions of the trip. Tillerson will join him for most of the trip. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will join Trump at the NATO conference.
Trump and his team regard the trip as an opportunity for the U.S. president to unify Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders against extremism, a senior administration official said. Trump will seek to define the conflict with Islamic State and other terrorists as one of good versus evil, rather than the West versus Islam, the official said.
His aides also believe Trump can signal that the U.S. is re-establishing its global leadership role while emphasizing its allies’ responsibility to share more of the burden of their own defense and to increase investment and partnerships that can create U.S. jobs, the official said.
Kushner has been developing the itinerary since November. Saudi Arabia won the first stop, the official said, after promising large U.S. investments -- including purchases of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment in the next decade and investments of as much as $40 billion from its sovereign wealth fund.
Saudi officials have told the White House that King Salman will publicly say it’s the responsibility of leaders throughout the Middle East to defeat radical ideology in the region, according to another administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the visit. This official said the White House regards that speech as a significant development that could draw other Arab nations closer to the U.S.
Trump began thinking about the trip just after his election, and he is deeply involved in the preparations, including writing much of the speeches he is to deliver in Saudi Arabia and Israel addressing extremism and peace efforts, the first administration official said.
But the trip comes at a difficult time inside the White House, where there is rampant fear among staff that the president may replace them even as they scramble to manage fallout from Trump’s decision to fire Comey and his public remarks afterward. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has urged "less drama," while Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, another Republican, has characterized the situation as a "downward spiral."
Aides turned up the sound on televisions in the West Wing at one point earlier this week to prevent reporters from hearing an argument between staff in Spicer’s office.
Haass said he’d have advised Trump not to attempt a trip of this scale even before the Comey controversy. Trump is still learning foreign-policy basics and hasn’t notched many accomplishments. But now, Trump must go forward with his plans if only because not doing so would reinforce a sense of crisis.
The senior administration official said speculation about the impact of the Comey crisis on the trip is overblown and that the White House doesn’t view the trip as an opportunity to redeem the president or change the subject. Instead, the official said, the president and his team are confident that the substance of the trip -- including major national security and business announcements -- will generate headlines that can push Comey, Russia and the appointment of a special counsel off of front pages.
That may depend largely on Trump himself.
"Will he be a solid representative for the U.S. who is quite staid and sensible like most presidents are when they go overseas, or will he carry forward the populism and bombast and buffoonery?" said British political strategist Matthew Elliott, who served as chief executive of the pro-Brexit "Vote Leave" campaign.
"Actually, a lot of his mistakes are self-imposed, reacting badly to things and feeding the story rather than tamping it down," Elliott said. "So, if his attention is diverted from the domestic stage, it could actually buy him a bit of respite rather than following him around the world."
— With assistance by Nick Wadhams