Trump Sticks to Script in Mideast, Trying to Turn Page on Russia

  • President avoided gaffes in Riyadh, in part by avoiding media
  • White House aides brush off questions about political crisis

U.S. President Donald Trump spoke in Tel Aviv after arriving in Israel as part of his first trip overseas. Trump spoke of finding 'new reasons for hope' during his travels. (Source: Bloomberg)

At this rate, Donald Trump might never want to come home.

In Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his marathon first trip outside the U.S. as president, he rubbed shoulders with sheikhs and kings, scooped up $110 billion in defense deals, and delivered a well-received speech on combating terror. He arrived in Israel today to pursue what he’s called the ultimate deal, Middle East peace.

Back in Washington, it’s a different story. The FBI director Trump reportedly called a “nut job” a day after firing him has agreed to testify publicly. Someone in Trump’s inner circle -- quite possibly someone in the entourage for his trip -- emerged as a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, according to the Washington Post. He’s delivering a budget to Congress Tuesday that Republicans effectively will ignore, but could garner negative headlines with its call for steep cuts to programs for the poor.

Of Trump’s many headaches, the first is the most dangerous. The “nut job” comment about James Comey, reported by the New York Times, came from private conversations with the Russian foreign minister in the Oval Office. That kind of super-secret interaction would typically be shared with the smallest handful of people, according to three former intelligence officials. The upshot is that someone close to Trump may be leaking damaging material, or at least allowing it to fall into the hands of those willing to leak.

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Trip Spin

Trump and his advisers are trying hard to deflect attention from the domestic political crisis. Four senior officials brushed off questions about whether the White House had a leak when approached in Riyadh.

The White House has depicted the first two days of Trump’s foreign trip as an unmitigated success, even sending out a press release that compiled complimentary quotes about the president’s performance in Riyadh from U.S. politicians and journalists. He’s committed no gaffes, and has said nothing to worsen his political troubles back home. That’s in large part because the trip has been tightly scripted, Trump has stuck to that script, and his interactions with journalists have been both rare and brief.

Even the tweets from his @realDonaldTrump account, so often a wellspring of political firestorms, have been banal.

“Great to be in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,” Trump tweeted upon his arrival. “Looking forward to the afternoon and evening ahead.”

Diplomacy and Sales

The trip so far has been a whirlwind of diplomacy, sales, and promotion of U.S. investment that’s included meetings with Saudi royalty and other Gulf nation leaders, dancing with sword-wielding men, and attending the inauguration of a Saudi-backed center to counter extremist ideology.

He delivered a major speech describing how Muslim nations and the U.S. can partner to counter Islamic State and Iran. He’s not once used the term “radical Islamic terrorism” in public, a mainstay of his campaign rhetoric.

But back home, the Comey firing and the investigation of Trump’s campaign remained the central narrative on Sunday morning talk shows. Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, declined to say on ABC’s “This Week” whether Trump had raised the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election with the Russian diplomats during his May 10 meeting.

On the same program, Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said he’d hope the president would’ve beaten the Russians “over the head” about the issue. Chaffetz, who plans to leave Congress on June 30, currently chairs the Government Oversight Committee, and said he expects to speak with Comey on Monday.

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the senior Democrat on Chaffetz’s committee, said on the show that he’d like the chairman to issue subpoenas compelling the White House to release any documentation of the meeting with the Russians.

‘Nut Job’

People in the U.S. intelligence community are particularly astounded that details of Trump’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Russia’s U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, would leak to the media.

One former intelligence official said presidential communications are very sensitive and typicallyclosely held. The former official said the revelation that Trump had called Comey a “nut job” appeared to have come from a raw or unofficial transcript -- the kind of document that’s not widely circulated. Official transcripts seldom include colloquial language.

The report indicates that people around the president are disloyal, the official said.

Trump and his entourage, perhaps including people under investigation by the FBI or leaking his most secretive conversations, next travel to Israel. He’ll meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Palestinian leaders in Bethlehem. He is to meet with Pope Francis mid-week at the Vatican, completing a swing through the centers of three of the world’s major religions.

Before returning to Washington he’ll attend a NATO summit in Brussels, where he’ll meet the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron. Trump is to end his trip at this year’s Group of Seven meeting in Sicily.

— With assistance by Andrew M Harris

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