WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s maiden international trip, a five-stop trek across the Middle East and Europe, has long loomed as crucial first test abroad for the chaos-courting president. Here is what to expect, and his itinerary.
Now, with the eyes and ears of the world upon him, the president will embark on his big trip carrying the baggage of dire troubles at home. As he tries to calm allies worried about his “America First” message, he’ll be followed by fallout from his firing of FBI Director James Comey and the appointment of a special counsel to probe the president’s campaign ties with Russia.
Now, whether these accusations are true or not, they are still without a doubt a stain on his presidency, and the world is watching.
“There has never been a president taking his first international trip being dogged by scandal like this,” said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “He’s already a president viewed skeptically by much of the world. And while the pictures from the trip may be great, the White House can’t change the headlines that will follow him wherever he goes.”
Trump’s trip was always going to be dramatic. U.S. allies have been rattled by his warnings about pulling back from the world. He is tasked with urging a united front against terror by appealing to some of the same corners of the Muslim world he has tried to keep out of the United States with his travel ban. Last week, he added new layers of complication by disclosing classified intelligence to a longtime adversary.
Still, the White House once hoped the trip, wrapped in the pomp and circumstance of diplomatic protocol, could offer a chance at a reset after a tumultuous first four months in office. Trump’s advisers saw it as an opportunity for the United States to boldly reassert itself on the world stage and resume a leadership role that the administration believes was abdicated by President Barack Obama. Trump’s powerful senior adviser, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, led a West Wing team to craft the agenda, laden with religious symbolism.
Still, Trump hasn’t been eager to seize the opportunity. It’s been more than a half-century since any president waited as long to take his first foreign trip. The itinerary, which begins Saturday in Saudi Arabia, is a startlingly ambitious excursion for a president who dislikes travel and has displayed a shaky grasp of foreign affairs.
Each stop comes with high stakes, and historic symbolism.
President Trump has a packed itinerary, and here are the details.
In Saudi Arabia, the president — whose campaign was marked by heated anti-Muslim rhetoric and whose administration has tried to enact a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries — will deliver a speech to the Islamic world meant to be a clear contrast with the vision Obama laid out in his first trip to the region.
In Israel, Trump will meet with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, looking to smooth over fresh tensions. Israel was in an uproar earlier this week after U.S. officials confirmed Trump shared highly classified intelligence about the Islamic State group with senior Russian officials visiting the White House. The information, about an IS threat related to the use of laptops on aircraft, came from Israel and there were concerns a valuable Israeli asset could be in danger, a U.S. official said, requesting anonymity to discuss the sensitive material.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster added to the alarm by refusing to declare the Western Wall a part of Israel. U.S. policy holds that ownership of the holiest site where Jews can pray, as with the rest of Jerusalem, is subject to Israeli-Palestinian negotiation.
In Rome, the president will call upon Pope Francis, the popular, liberal-minded pontiff. Trump denounced Francis during the campaign, calling the holiest man in the Catholic faith “disgraceful” for questioning his faith.
In Brussels, Trump will attend a meeting of NATO, the World War II-era alliance which Trump has repeatedly mused about abandoning because member states weren’t paying their fair share. He recently has shifted to reassure wary allies that he remains committed to the pact.
And in Sicily, the president will meet with the other leaders of the G7, a gathering of Western economic powers. Key parts of the group are unsettled by Trump’s unpredictability and his willingness to cheer on nationalist sentiment.
Trump’s itinerary is heavy with religious symbolism. He’ll visit the birthplace of Islam, the Jewish homeland and the Vatican. Officials say the message is “unity.”
“He strongly believes that it is the strength of the faith of people in these religions that will stand up and ultimately be victorious over these forces of terrorism,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
Administration officials believe the unexpected move of going to Saudi Arabia first was meant to underscore the seriousness of the United States’ commitment to fighting extremist groups like the Islamic State. Trump, whose denunciations of Iran have been welcomed by the Saudis, wants to frame the conflict not as one between the West and Islam, but simply between good and evil, according to his aides.
While some Middle East leaders will likely greet Trump warmly, he could receive a far cooler reception in Europe. Though Pope Francis has said he’d “never make a judgment about a person without hearing him out,” others on the continent have sharply criticized Trump. That includes France’s newly elected President Emmanuel Macron, who denounced Trump’s musings on abandoning the Paris climate treaty, a likely point of contention in Sicily.
Trump’s inauguration sparked thousands of protesters to fill the streets of several European capitals, chaotic scenes that could be repeated during his stops in Rome, Brussels and Sicily.
“Welcome to the White House abroad,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s former press secretary. “This is a great opportunity for the president to change the subject, to make real news. But the downside is that it could be dominated by domestic-style questions. … Every first trip is over-scrutinized. The whole world is watching.”
A more in-depth detailed breakdown of President Trump’s Itinerary:
That Trump’s first stop is in an Arab country is not lost on foreign policy observers. It’s meant to send a strong message of cooperation with an Islamic ally that’s been strained in recent years.
While Trump’s travel ban affecting multiple Muslim-majority countries spawned outrage and remains mired in court fights, Saudi Arabia was never targeted by it and the country’s leadership has largely accepted the president’s rationale.
“Personal diplomacy to the Saudis is very important. They got along well with George W. Bush; they didn’t get along well with Obama,” says Robert W. Jordan, who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Bush.
In addition to meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Trump also is scheduled to convene with the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Saudi Arabia and five nearby countries.
But the president’s most substantial moment is expected to come during a lunch meeting with dozens of leaders from across the Muslim world. Trump will deliver what his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, described as an “inspiring yet direct” speech on the need to confront radical ideology, and will express his hopes for a “peaceful vision of Islam to dominate across the world.”
How far Trump decides to go in his rhetoric will help set the table for his relationship with the Arab world.
“If he says nothing about Islamist extremism, then I think supporters at home will say he bit his tongue,” Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters. “If he says too much about it, he could conceivably offend some of those who are there.”
From Saudi Arabia, Trump will fly to Jerusalem, where he will attempt his first overture at Middle East peace while in the Holy Land.
But he’ll also join Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem to express his eagerness to forge a lasting peace agreement between Abbas’ people and the Israelis, while pressuring Palestinians to take meaningful action toward a resolution.
Middle East peace has been an ephemeral endeavor that’s spanned decades of U.S. presidencies, and there’s no reason to believe conditions are any riper for an accord now.
But Trump has shown a willingness to nudge the Israelis, telling Netanyahu during their joint White House appearance in February to “hold back on settlements for a bit.” He’s also been noncommittal on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite a campaign promise to do so.
“They fear that he is going to ask the Israelis to do things that this government may not want to do, may not be in a position to do,” Robert Danin, another senior fellow specializing in Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said to reporters. “The reality is that in Israel and in the Palestinian territories – and, frankly, here in Washington – very few people see a real change in the dynamics that would lead to a breakthrough towards peace.”
“If it’s business as usual after Trump’s visit, it’s pretty easy to decide the two sides are calling his bluff or challenging that he has the backbone to proceed,” Kurtzer says.
Trump also may be walking into talks with Israel holding considerably less leverage than he had a week ago. The revelation that Israel was the source of the intelligence he reportedly shared with Russian leadership could weaken his diplomatic stock.
Trump may be the only presidential candidate in history to have sparred with the pope in the midst of a campaign. During his pursuit of the GOP nomination, he described Pope Francis’ rebuke of his proposal to build a border wall as “disgraceful.”
But his touchdown at the Vatican will be historically symbolic given it will mark his culminating stop in connecting with three of the world’s most prominent religions.
The pope has signaled he is keeping an open mind going into the meeting, even though he differs with Trump on a long line of issues, from immigration to climate change.
“I will say what I think and he will say what he thinks. But I have never wanted to make a judgment without first listening to the person,” Francis told reporters last week.
With little chance of either changing the other’s mind on policy, the meeting is widely being framed as a fence-mending exercise that could offer the president two things many would say he’s in current need of: humility and a spiritual blessing.
NATO in Belgium
The NATO meeting in Brussels will give Trump a direct opportunity to demand more from the 28-member coalition he once signaled a willingness to abandon as a candidate.
While that dramatic possibility appears to have dissipated, the president is expected to reinforce a call for more member countries to commit 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense. Right now, just five NATO countries meet that standard, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, though Europe and Canada posted increases in 2016.
Trump is also scheduled for separate meetings with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, and he’ll lunch with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.
Broadly, Europeans are looking for signs of continuity in their transatlantic relationship with the U.S.
But in reality, any articulation of a vision would be an advancement.
“The administration has not yet articulated any kind of agenda for the relationship with the European Union. This is a big glaring hole in their policy,” Rathke said.
The G-7 in Italy
Trump will cap his trip in Italy with an appearance at the G-7 summit with leaders of other industrialized economic powers.
His administration has put off a decision on whether to follow through with his pledge to quit the Obama-backed Paris Agreement on climate change, aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The delay may stem from a desire to seek input from other nations in the pact, or simply to avoid confronting a decision that will have ripple effects with allies foreign and domestic.
While no formal discussions on trade are expected, the anticipation is that negotiations will be held behind closed doors in Taormina, a picturesque hilltop town on the eastern coast of Sicily.
Don’t expect any formal declarations on policy, either. The most important aspect of the president’s first trip may simply be the chance he has to establish relationships that will set the foundation for American foreign policy moves down the road.
Winning, in this instance, may constitute less rather than more.
“The best that President Trump can hope for is a mistake-free NATO meeting and G-7 summit – he needs a healthy dose of no-drama diplomacy,” says Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at The Center for the National Interest. “We are far from the point of asking for any substantive policy declarations, alliance-building or strategic advancements of U.S. foreign policy goals.
“He just needs to not make any mistakes and look presidential.”