Trump heads abroad, con­tro­versy in tow

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS - JOANNA SLATER U.S. COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Nine-day diplo­matic tour of Mid­dle East, Europe dogged by con­tin­u­ing rev­e­la­tions over Comey fir­ing, col­lu­sion with Rus­sia

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has em­barked on a nine-day diplo­matic ob­sta­cle course that of­fers both op­por­tu­nity and peril for a pres­i­dent ea­ger to change the sub­ject as scan­dal rages back home.

In­deed, Mr. Trump’s flight to Saudi Ara­bia had just be­gun on Fri­day af­ter­noon when The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that a White House of­fi­cial is a sig­nif­i­cant per­son of in­ter­est in the probe into pos­si­ble co-or­di­na­tion be­tween Rus­sia and Mr. Trump’s cam­paign team. Mr. Trump has said there was “zero” col­lu­sion.

Min­utes later came a re­port in The New York Times that Mr. Trump had told Rus­sian of­fi­cials dur­ing an Oval Of­fice meet­ing this month that fir­ing James Comey as di­rec­tor of the U.S. Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion re­lieved “great pres­sure” on him. The pa­per cited an in­ter­nal doc­u­ment sum­ma­riz­ing the meet­ing, dur­ing which Mr. Trump de­scribed Mr. Comey as “crazy” and “a real nut job.”

No pres­i­dent in re­cent mem­ory has been as reluc­tant to leave the coun­try as Mr. Trump. His pre­de­ces­sors made early vis­its to Canada, Mex­ico and else­where, but he has de­murred, pre­fer­ring to have for­eign lead­ers come to him. That raises the stakes for this trip, which is longer and more com­pli­cated than the tra­di­tional pres­i­den­tial de­but on the world stage.

On Fri­day morn­ing, hours ahead of his de­par­ture, he re­asserted his “Amer­ica First” vi­sion of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. “Get­ting ready for my big for­eign trip,” he wrote on Twit­ter. “Will be strongly pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can in­ter­ests – that’s what I like to do!”

Mr. Trump is a man of habit, who has not spent a night any­where other than the White House or a prop­erty he owns since his in­au­gu­ra­tion. In Saudi Ara­bia, his first of five stops, his hosts will pre­pare his favourite meal – steak with a side of ketchup – in ad­di­tion to lo­cal del­i­ca­cies.

But even the most so­lic­i­tous of hosts can­not in­su­late Mr. Trump from the dif­fi­cult diplo­matic bal­anc­ing act that awaits him.

In Saudi Ara­bia, Mr. Trump is sched­uled to de­liver a speech aimed at the Is­lamic world af­ter run­ning a cam­paign marked by anti-Mus­lim rhetoric. In Is­rael, he will meet with Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, days af­ter he re­port­edly shared top-se­cret Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence with Rus­sia. In Rome, he will visit the Pope, the pop­u­lar, lib­eral-minded pon­tiff whom he de­nounced dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign.

Then, in Brus­sels, he will par­tic­i­pate in a sum­mit at the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion, an al­liance whose util­ity he repeatedly ques­tioned be­fore rev­ers­ing him­self. And in Si­cily, he will join fel­low lead­ers of the Group of Seven na­tions, some of whom are deeply un­set­tled by his ap­proach to world af­fairs.

It is an itin­er­ary that would tax any pres­i­dent and his staff. The dif­fi­culty is fur­ther mag­ni­fied by the fact that Mr. Trump is em­broiled in an up­roar over al­le­ga­tions of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the U.S. elec­tion and his fir­ing of Mr. Comey on May 9.

“This is a White House that is go­ing to have to walk and chew gum at the same time, when it has al­ready shown an in­abil­ity to walk very far with­out trip­ping,” said Jon Finer, who was the chief of staff to for­mer sec­re­tary of state John Kerry.

Mr. Trump and his staff will have to grap­ple with any cri­sis that pops up back in the United States or else­where and still fo­cus on the busi­ness at hand, all while they are jet-lagged and far from the sup­port struc­tures in Wash­ing­ton.

The ini­tial por­tion of Mr. Trump’s trip – which in­cludes vis­its to Riyadh, Jerusalem, Beth­le­hem and the Vat­i­can – is packed with re­li­gious sym­bol­ism and is in­tended to send a mes­sage of unity. Mr. Trump’s pow­er­ful se­nior ad­viser, his son-in-law Jared Kush­ner, led a West Wing team to craft the agenda.

On Sun­day, Mr. Trump is sched­uled to have lunch with the lead­ers of more than 50 pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim na­tions. There, he will de­liver an ad­dress whose goal is to bring to­gether “the broader Mus­lim world against com­mon en­e­mies of all civ­i­liza­tion,” ac­cord­ing to na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser H.R. McMaster.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, Mr. Trump de­clared that “Is­lam hates us,” vil­i­fy­ing a re­li­gion prac­tised by mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. In his first week as pres­i­dent, he signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der ban­ning cit­i­zens of seven Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity na­tions from en­ter­ing the United States, a move the courts later blocked, partly on the grounds that it rep­re­sented a form of re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion. One of the chief ar­chi­tects of the ban, pol­icy ad­viser Stephen Miller, is re­port­edly draft­ing Mr. Trump’s speech for Sun­day.

With that back­drop, Mr. Trump ben­e­fits from low ex­pec­ta­tions, said Shadi Hamid, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion in Wash­ing­ton who is an ex­pert on po­lit­i­cal Is­lam. “The mes­sen­ger is prob­lem­atic,” Mr. Hamid said, but “as long as he doesn’t say some­thing ter­ri­bly of­fen­sive, it will be seen as a suc­cess.”

While lead­ers in the Mid­dle East are likely to greet Mr. Trump warmly, he could re­ceive a cooler re­cep­tion in Europe. Although the Pope has said he would “never make a judg­ment about a per­son with­out hear­ing them out,” other pub­lic fig­ures on the con­ti­nent have is­sued sharp crit­i­cisms of Mr. Trump. That in­cludes France’s newly elected Pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron, who de­nounced Mr. Trump’s mus­ings on aban­don­ing the Paris cli­mate treaty, a likely point of con­tention at the G7 meet­ing in Si­cily.

ALEX BRAN­DON/AP

Air Force One, with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump aboard, taxis for take­off at An­drews Air Force Base on Fri­day.

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