Trump's foreign trip: 5 high-stakes stops as the president leaves his domestic woes at home
Besieged by scandal in Washington, the president's tour abroad won't mean escaping thorny foreign policy
Donald Trump is embarking on his first foreign trip as U.S. president, covering five nations in nine days. If he thought he'd be leaving his problems behind at home, not quite; this tour won't be an escape from political headaches.
"Presumably, Trump would think this is a great time to get out of Washington," says former State Department policy planning staffer Stewart Patrick, now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
But even if the press corps travelling with him doesn't dog him about his recent domestic difficulties, Patrick says Trump will need to dodge "foreign policy landmines" along each stop.
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The president has a known aversion to travel, but this trip would be gruelling for any experienced commander-in-chief. To ease his comfort, Trump's hosts in Saudi Arabia will be serving his favourite meal of steak and ketchup, according to the Associated Press. And NATO officials are reportedly scrambling to "Trump-proof" meetings by streamlining talking points to better hold his attention.
Here's a further look at Trump's schedule and possible problems he may encounter abroad:
Trump arrives Saturday to the Saudi capital of Riyadh, where he will be given the red-carpet treatment.
One of Trump's celebrity supporters, American country music star Toby Keith, will join the U.S. president there for a free concert, open only to men.
The conservative Arab kingdom is the birthplace of Islam, a religion Trump has taken a tough position on — particularly "radical" Islam. Following his controversial order banning travel for people from a number of Muslim-majority nations (Saudi Arabia not among them), Patrick says the biggest question will be the content of Trump's planned speech on uniting the Muslim world as allies against the threat of ISIS.
"What standing does he have to talk about Islam, given some of the domestic pronouncements he's made, or his lack of personal knowledge of Islam?" Patrick says. He cautions Trump may need to stick to the script and demonstrate nuance in how or whether he describes Islam as a peaceful religion.
While in Riyadh, the president will reportedly close a major weapons deal worth more than $100 billion US.
The Saudis will be welcoming the fact that Trump takes a harder line on Iran, Patrick says. They'll be particularly interested in how his vow to "review" U.S. policy toward Tehran might affect the future of the Iran nuclear deal.
Overshadowing Trump's stopover in Israel will be the bombshell reports that the president shared highly classified "code-word" intelligence on ISIS activities with two Russian diplomats last week. Israel was reportedly the source of the intelligence.
By allegedly sharing that intelligence, "he has conceivably empowered Russia to, if they can find the sources and methods, share that information with Iran," Patrick says, adding Trump is likely to "get an earful from the Israeli press."
"His staff will hear from Israeli intelligence services about how seriously they take this."
Patrick expects Trump will also be pressed to justify appointing his son-in-law Jared Kushner as an envoy to broker peace in the Middle East, a complex undertaking that has evaded U.S. diplomats with immense foreign-policy experience.
"It's unclear why [Kushner] can accomplish what Dennis Ross, George Mitchell and John Kerry couldn't bring about," Patrick says. "There's certainly deep skepticism from the Palestinians that he can."
Trump may have already committed a slight by cancelling a planned visit to Israel's hallowed Masada fortress, because a helicopter would not be permitted to land at the UNESCO site's summit. Previous U.S. presidents have paid their respects at Masada, riding in a funicular instead.
Pope Francis and the president have exchanged a war of words before, with the pontiff saying last year that Trump "is not Christian" if he advocates building walls.
"I will tell him what I think," Pope Francis said of his upcoming meeting with Trump, according to ABC News. "He will tell me what he thinks. But I never wanted to judge someone before I listen to the person first."
Nicola Casarini, a fellow with the Wilson Center think-tank, who specializes in European policy, says the Pope has made it clear that on immigration, "he stands for the free flow of people."
Concerns about solving climate change might be another theme in this meeting. The Pope has been vocal about the need to protect the environment and may prod the president on U.S. commitments to the Paris Climate accord. Though the pontiff has also indicated he does not wish to engage in debate, but rather seek common ground with Trump.
"The Pope has a very strong personality," Casarini says, adding that Trump may be more willing to strike a conciliatory tone due to the Pope's fame and popularity.
Trump will attend a dinner for NATO leaders in Brussels. Allies will be looking for reassurance of a U.S. commitment to the military alliance, following candidate Trump's campaign rhetoric calling NATO "obsolete." As president, Trump re-evaluated that stance in April, telling reporters, "It's no longer obsolete."
The perennial issue of "burden-sharing" on defence is likely to come up, as Trump has suggested NATO's partner nations ante up more money for defence.
A central question will be whether the U.S. will be in lockstep with its NATO allies on the potential danger posed by Russia.
That issue may arise, Casarini says, as Trump has been the only U.S. president not to endorse Article 5, a pillar of the treaty that says any attack on one member nation constitutes war with all in the alliance. How — or whether — the U.S. would defend an ally in the event that a NATO country comes under the aggression of Russia, for example, raises anxieties. At the same time, the principle behind Article 5 is extremely objectionable to the president's far-right, anti-globalist supporters.
But "if you start raising doubts about Article 5, what is the alliance for?" Casarini asks.
Trump wraps up his foreign tour in Sicily with a two-day meeting of the G7 group of major industrialized countries.
At issue is what relevance the G7 has in an era in which Trump has challenged "pillars of the Western order," such as open trade and the promotion of human rights, Patrick says.
Given Trump's "America First" pledge and threats to impose stiff tariffs on imports, leaders from the other major economies will be parsing Trump's trade policy. Trump could be left to defend his protectionist stance in the face of a G7 that traditionally embraces a free trade agenda.
European members, such as Italy, may also be concerned about whether the U.S. will intervene with a military role in an increasingly unstable Libya.
"They think Libya could become another Syria, and with many migrants reaching Italy, that's a very important issue for the Europeans," Casarini says.
The G7 will also be Trump's first time meeting with the new centrist French President Emmanuel Macron, who rode a liberal agenda in the recent election to defeat the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
"I wouldn't expect Trump and Macron to get along that much. Everybody in France knows Trump would have preferred to have Le Pen as [French] president, so it will not be an enthusiastic meeting," Casarini says.