Trump heads out, leaves tu­mult be­hind

Pres­i­dent to make 5 stops on first in­ter­na­tional trip

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - NATION & WORLD - By Jonathan Lemire

WASH­ING­TON— Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ini­tial in­ter­na­tional trip, a five-stop marathon across the Mid­dle East and Europe, has long loomed as a cru­cial first test abroad for the pres­i­dent.

That was be­fore he fired his FBI di­rec­tor — and the chain re­ac­tion of scan­dal that fol­lowed.

Now, with the eyes 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.

“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 fol­lowhim wher­ever he goes.”

Mean­while, af­ter say­ing he was “very close” to nam­ing a new FBI di­rec­tor, Trump boarded Air Force One with­out mak­ing any com­ment about the fu­ture lead­er­ship of the law en­force­ment agency.

The White House said no an­nounce­ment would be made. For­mer Sen. Joe Lieber­man has emerged as a top can­di­date to re­place Comey.

Trump in­ter­viewed Lieber­man and three other can­di­dates thisweek.

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. Last­week, he added new lay­ers of com­pli­ca­tion by dis­clos­ing clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence to Rus­sia.

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 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.

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.

He tweeted Fri­day morn­ing: “Get­ting ready for my big for­eign trip. Will be strongly pro­tect­ing Amer­i­can in­ter­ests— that’s what I like to do!”

Each stop comes with high stakes.

In Saudi Ara­bia, the pres­i­dent — whose cam­paign was marked by heated an­tiMus­lim 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 Pres­i­dent Barack Obama laid out in his first trip to the re­gion.

Trump will use his first visit to the Mid­dle East to call for unity in the fight against rad­i­cal­ism in the Mus­lim world, cast­ing the chal­lenge as a “bat­tle be­tween good and evil” and urg­ing Arab lead­ers to “drive out the ter­ror­ists from your places of wor­ship,” ac­cord­ing to a draft of the speech.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion also plans to an­nounce $110 bil­lion in ad­vanced mil­i­tary equip­ment sales and train­ing to Saudi Ara­bia, of­fi­cials said. The an­nounce­ment is ex­pected Satur­day in Riyadh.

In Is­rael, Trump will meet with Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, look­ing to smooth over fresh ten­sions. Is­rael was in an up­roar 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 Is­lamic State 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.

In Rome, the pres­i­dent will call upon Pope Fran­cis, the pop­u­lar pon­tiff. Trump de­nounced Fran­cis dur­ing the cam­paign, call­ing him “dis­grace­ful” for ques­tion­ing his faith.

MAN­DEL NGAN/GETTY-AFP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and first lady Me­la­nia Trump board Air Force One on Fri­day.

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