Trump heads out, leaves tumult behind
President to make 5 stops on first international trip
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.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One on Friday.