Donald Trump’s first trip abroad as president, which begins on Friday, is an opportunity for him to escape the scandal-ridden morass of Washington and look statesmanlike on the world stage. Let’s game out the chances of him pulling that off.
Most presidents, and every president since Reagan, have visited either Mexico or Canada as their first trip out of the country. But Trump’s 11-day trip starts in Saudi Arabia. Maybe that’s because, despite the Islamaphobic rhetoric of his campaign for president and his attempted travel ban, Sunni Arab governments have been pretty happy with Trump so far, preferring his administration’s tough anti-Iran policies and general disregard for promoting human rights to the Obama administration. The Saudis in particular have been working to counter the notion that Trump is hostile to Islam, and that effort will continue during the trip. While in Saudi Arabia, Trump will speak about what H.R. McMaster calls his “hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam” at a meeting of officials from 50 Muslim countries. CNN reports that the speech is being drafted by Trump adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of the travel ban, which could be awkward. But his Saudi hosts are probably inclined to give him a pass on any faux pas, and this may end up being the easiest leg of the trip.
Trump’s next stop will be Israel. The administration was already on the defensive over reported comments by Trump officials suggesting that Israel does not have jurisdiction over the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a position the administration has declined to clarify. Then came this week’s revelation that Trump discussed classified intelligence on ISIS provided by Israel with Russia’s foreign minister in the Oval Office last week, reportedly endangering the life of an Israeli agent. Israeli intelligence officials are apparently incensed and re-evaluating intelligence-sharing arrangements with the U.S.
That’s just the big stuff: The president, who’s been accused of courting the support of anti-Semites and whose advisers have made some shockingly unforced errors regarding the Holocaust, will lay a wreath at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. Trump has already been criticized in the Israeli media for only scheduling a 15-minute stop there. Trump also reportedly called off a planned visit to Masada—where he was to give the keynote speech of his visit—because the Israelis wouldn’t let him land a helicopter at the sensitive archaeological site, and the White House didn’t want him riding a cable car to the top of the mountain, something both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were willing to do on their presidential visits. As Israeli reporter Ronen Bergman told my colleague Isaac Chotiner, Bibi Netanyahu really wants this visit to go well, and Trump certainly has fans in Israel. It should be a relatively easy leg of the trip for the U.S. president if he can stop getting in his own way.
Next up will be the Vatican for an audience with Pope Francis. [Pause.] The pope said recently that he doesn’t want to prejudge Trump before meeting him, but it’s not exactly a secret that the two don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues, including climate change and the treatment of refugees. During a trip to Mexico in 2016, Francis remarked, in a clear reference to Trump, that, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” Trump called the remark “disgraceful.” Also, presumably Trump will have to pray during this visit. Not sure how it will go!
Then, it’s off to Brussels for a NATO summit. Trump has somewhat tempered his criticism of the organization he once called “obsolete,” but at least some White House officials haven’t given up on the idea of pulling out of the alliance altogether.
The organization seems pretty flummoxed about how to deal with Trump. Foreign Policy reported this week that NATO is instructing heads of state to limit their remarks to less than four minutes, so as not to tax the president’s attention span. Said one source involved in the preparations:
It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child—someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing. They’re freaking out.
Trump will also have a “long lunch” in Brussels with new French President Emanuel Macron, an encounter that also comes with some baggage. During his campaign, Macron enthusiastically touted the support of Barack Obama while Trump quasi-endorsed his rival, Marine Le Pen.* The last stop for Trump will be a G-7 summit in Sicily … unless a volcano erupts.
All along the way, Trump is likely to be dogged by questions about what’s going on back in Washington, where the fallout surrounding the firing of FBI director James Comey will no doubt continue, in addition to whatever else the ever-churning Trump news cycle dishes up.
*Correction, May 17, 2017: This post originally misspelled Marine Le Pen’s first name.