RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - President Trump will begin an ambitious five-city, nine-day foreign trip in Saudi Arabia on Saturday with the goal of uniting the Muslim world against terror — even as his presidency is embroiled in a quickly escalating controversy over his ties to the Russian government.
Presidents often turn to foreign affairs when there's trouble at home, but President Trump's very first foreign trip comes amid a succession of breathtaking developments over his firing of the FBI director, contacts with Russian diplomats and the appointment of special counsel to investigate.
As the bombshells multiply in Washington, Trump himself appears eager for a change in subject. Asked about the Russia investigation at a press conference Thursday, Trump brought up the foreign trip.
“Tomorrow, as you know, I’m going to Saudi Arabia, going to Israel. I’m going to Rome. And we have the G7. We have a lot of great things going on,” he said. “So I hate to see anything that divides. I’m fine with whatever people want to do, but we have to get back to running this country really, really well.”
Still, the headlines put even more pressure on the White House to deliver a foreign policy victory, but White House officials seemed to be tamping down expectations this week. And experts said domestic issues can’t help but to be a distraction.
"His current domestic political problems are a deepening concern," said Jim Phillips, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who's been supportive of Trump's Middle East policy. "I think President Trump's standing at home definitely will be a factor in the perceptions of friends and allies abroad, and in how they interact with him."
But in Riyadh, there’s a clear sense of national pride that Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign destination as president. Bright electronic billboards line King Salman Road the airport to downtown, showing side-by-side photos of President Trump and the Saudi king under the banner “Together we Prevail.” Other billboards show President Franklin Roosevelt’s meeting with King Salman’s father in 1945, underscoring how the U.S.-Saudi alliance has endured under presidents of both parties.
But while the kings and crown princes who govern the region have been receptive to Trump's opposition to the Islamic State and Iran, religious leaders are more wary. Saudi diplomats tried to downplay sources of friction in the relationship, including Trump’s anti-Muslim campaign statements, his travel ban from six Muslim countries (not including Saudi Arabia) and a bill passed by Congress over President Obama’s veto last year that allows victims of terrorism to sue the Saudi government.
One Saudi diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters, said those issues wouldn’t be a priority in the talks with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies. What those allies are most encouraged by, he said, was the Trump administration's approach to countering terrorism in all forms.
On Monday, Trump travels to Jerusalem for talks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, an issue that has confounded every modern president even under the best of circumstances. But Trump comes to Israel amid revelations he divulged top secret Israeli intelligence to Russia, and after a diplomatic flare-up over the U.S. refusal to recognize Jerusalem as wholly within Israeli territory.
And next Wednesday, Trump flies to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. But even at the Vatican, Trump will face a pontiff with whom he's feuded in the past over his policies on immigration and refugees.
That those three places are home to three of the world's great religions is no coincidence Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday that Trump hoped to "bring a message of unity among all of these people of faith, among these great religions" in the fight against terrorism.
The trip doesn't get easier from there. Trump goes to Brussels next Thursday for a summit with NATO leaders, who he's accused of not paying an adequate share for their common defense, and to an economic summit in Sicily where Trump's nationalist trade policies are bound to be a topic of discussion.
"Any foreign trip is a high-wire act. The fact that President Trump is going to try to do all this at once is mind-boggling," said Terence Szuplat, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama who worked on many of his early speeches in foreign capitals.
"The number of minefields here are just remarkable," he said. "It’s surprising that they’ve chosen this particular itinerary, given the dangerous mix of politics and religion that has burned other presidents in history."
Obama's own first foray into the Middle East came in June, 2009 as his third foreign trip. Saudi Arabia was his 10th foreign country overall, and he followed it with a visit to Egypt for a much-heralded Cairo speech called "A New Beginning."
Trump is expected to deliver his own version of that speech in Riyadh, but White House aides say they expect the tone and substance to be different.
"We're not going to be lecturing people, but we’re going to be talking to people and encouraging them to step up and join us in the fight against intolerance and extremism," said one Trump aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the speech as it was still being drafted.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump would deliver an "inspiring, yet direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology."
Obama often used such trips to engage in public diplomacy, addressing not just foreign leaders but their citizens in town hall-style meetings where he often took questions. Trump's nod to public diplomacy will come through his own preferred format: A social media event with young people "who will be able to live tweet his remarks to people all over the world," McMaster said.
The Tweeps Forum, a five-year-old initiative of the a foundation with ties to the Saudi government, will “discuss how social media platforms can empower people against extremism and terrorism,” according to organizers.
That might be the closest that Trump comes to answering questions during the trip. Foreign visits usually provide extraordinary press access to the president, with a press conference with foreign leaders at each stop.
But notably, the Trump White House has not announced any press conferences over the nine-day trip.
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