Trump's Travails US President Can't Escape Troubles on the Road
Mired in a web of scandal and lies back home, Donald Trump embarked on his first international trip this week to the Middle East and Europe. It was seen by the administration as a possible new beginning. But it hasn't worked out that way.
Perhaps the trip didn't first begin on board Air Force One or with the King of Saudi Arabia, but instead back in the restroom at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, where a Fox News reporter exclaimed euphorically: "This is gonna be epic!"
Outside, an early summer thunderstorm poured down on Washington, the kind that is dazzling and loud, but which does little to bring down the stifling temperature. Some 60 journalists, camera crews and technicians, in addition to a handful of White House staffers and Secret Service agents, were waiting inside the terminal of the military airport. The president would first depart on Air Force One a day later, after the storm passed. But the press had to travel ahead on a charter jet in order to prepare for his arrival in Riyadh. The flight from Washington, with a stopover in Frankfurt, took 15 hours, but the New York Times wore a tie nonetheless.
Riyadh, Jerusalem, Rome, Brussels and, in the end, the G-7 summit in Sicily -- five stops in nine days. Donald Trump is discovering the world. Expectations for the trip, it should be noted, weren't particularly high. When it comes to Trump, a lot can happen, especially disasters. Recent weeks have shown just how unpredictable this man is, how thin-skinned and intractable -- and how poor he is at gauging moods and people. But what happens if he meets with national leaders who don't fawn over him? What if he feels as though he is on the defensive or has to deal with some kind of crisis that, for once, isn't of his own making?
Trump's hope had been to escape the Russia scandal and the ensuing turbulence -- and to attempt a fresh start. As it turned out, that hope dried up during the trip. The new revelations about Trump aren't slowing down and ongoing hearings in Congress continue to generate headlines.
It was a tour of the kind that few other presidents have undertaken. For Trump, a man who abhors anything foreign to him, detests anything unusual and would prefer to sleep in his own bed or at least one of his hotels, it has been a feat of endurance.
He reportedly even asked his advisers if the trip could be made shorter. Perhaps just five days instead of nine?
From the very beginning, Trump was the most unlikely of tourists. The man who wanted to prevent Muslims from traveling into the United States took part in a sword dance in the royal court of the King of Saudi Arabia. He joined the leaders of Kazakhstan, Burkina Faso and Somalia for a meal. The "America First" man who wanted to withdraw from conflicts promised peace to the Israelis and Palestinians. A man who swears by revenge met the pope in Rome before joining the leaders of the European Union in Brussels, an institution he hopes will fail. What could possibly go wrong?
Wall Street Journal, Saturday, May 20, Page 1:
'Fired FBI Director James Comey To Testify in Public'
In Saudi Arabia, the king arrived in a golf cart as Donald Trump disembarked from Air Force One in Riyadh. It was shortly before 10 a.m., but the air was already hot and dry at 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit). The sound of cannons echoed over the runway and a military band played. For a few minutes, American domestic policy, the chaos in the White House and the Russian scandal, seemed to have evaporated in the shimmering heat. Military jets roared in from the left at a frighteningly low altitude. Trump looked to the skies and peered on as the aircraft trailed red, white and blue smoke. The message from King Salman to Trump was clear: You are safe here. Nobody will harm you. It was as though the king were welcoming an equal: King Donald.
Trump's most recent scandal began two weeks ago when he fired the head of the FBI. James Comey had spent months investigating Russian influence on the U.S. presidential election, including contacts between Trump's team and people close to Vladimir Putin. From Trump's perspective, it made sense to can Comey because he thought it would mean one less problem for him. Unfortunately for Trump, however, the FBI director had written up notes after a meeting with Trump indicating the president had requested he suspend the investigation.
Three days before Trump departed on his trip, came the news of the appointment of a special counsel to conduct the investigation. The pressure on the president was increasing by the day. That was the background to this trip.
Washington Post, Sunday, May 21, Page 1:
'A GOP congressman from Kentucky wonders: Is 'this Trump thing' sustainable?'
Trump -- a well-known critic of Islam -- planned to give a speech in Riyadh outlining his approach to the religion. First, though, came the banquet and the appearances -- as though in a theater -- of the secondary characters in this drama. Stephen Bannon, Trump's chief ideologist, sauntered through a side door into the auditorium of the King Abdullah Conference Center. He was followed by Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the glamorous couple. Then came Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer, a tragicomic figure if there ever was one -- half liar and half court jester.
People reveal a lot about themselves when they enter a room that isn't familiar to them. Spicer's eyes were glassy and peering out at a middle distance. He held onto a black folder with several documents protruding from it. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner resembled Hugo Boss models as they floated by. The only person who appeared to be looking around with interest was Bannon, the man whose radicalism helped Trump win the election -- and on whom Trump has soured, as has been the fate of so many others.
Trump thrives on chaos. His preferred working method is to have a dozen staffers in the Oval Office who he can summon or kick out at any time, like a petty king. No one is safe from his rage, not Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and not National Security Adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster, who also traveled with the delegation. Trump enjoys having people fight for his favor, even during this trip. And soon, Bannon would no longer be part of his traveling entourage.
Back in the conference center, though, his eyes were roaming across the white tables, where diplomats and leaders from Muslim countries were sitting in front of gold plates, silver bowls of chicken, roasted vegetables, rice in grape leaves, figs, tartlets and chocolate. All around the room, men could be seen in white robes, but there were no women at all. Bannon had paved the way for Trump's "America First" strategy, and now, here he was, the White House's most adamant hater of Islam, right in the heart of the Muslim world.
'Not a Hint of a Protester'
He could see the Koran surahs on the walls, crystal chandeliers as heavy as small cars and the dome in the center. The expression on his face said: What the hell am I doing here?
Trump is not the first president to have sought refuge by traveling abroad. In 1974, Richard Nixon also traveled to Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to temporarily escape the Watergate scandal. The trip had been intended as a way to divert attention and present Nixon as a dignified statesman. But the plan failed miserably and he resigned not long after his return.
Trump was then invited up to the stage, where a number of men were seated in leather chairs. They included kings, princes, emirs and even a few democrats from 50 different countries in the Muslim world. A frown crept onto Trump's face and his shoulders slouched forward. That morning at 9 a.m., he'd had a meeting with the King of Bahrain, followed by one with the Emir of Qatar. There were smiles, handshakes and small talk, something Trump hates. "Love your shoes. Boy, those shoes. Man," Trump told Egypt's president.
For trip preparation's, Trump had relied more heavily than ever on his son-in-law. For months, Kushner had been in close contact with the Saudi royal house. He had worked almost obsessively to ensure that his father-in-law's trip would be a success and to avoid the impression that it was a pleasure trip. In March, Kushner had invited the deputy crown prince to the White House. The prince now returned the favor with an opulent dinner in Riyadh.
Trump got up from his chair to give a speech on Islam, a rhetorical tight rope act. On one hand, he had to cater to a subset of people back in the United States who hate the Muslim religion. On the other, he had to avoid alienating Arabs with whom he would like to do business.
Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old adviser to Trump who, together with Bannon, had planned and implemented the entry ban for Muslims, wrote the speech. The big question had been whether or not Miller would be able to include the term "Islamist terrorism." The term irks many Muslims because it directly ties their religion with terrorism. Kushner and McMaster also opposed using it.
Although he said he was not there to lecture, Trump did say that Muslim nations "must be willing to take on the burden, if we are going to defeat terrorism." He also sharply criticized Iran, a country that has just re-elected moderate President Hassan Rohani. Trump spoke of a "battle between good and evil." Then he said that "Islamist extremism" must be confronted. The fact that he avoided the formulation the hardliners had wanted indicated that he was seeking to strike a milder tone.
The most surprising thing about Trump's speech was its harmlessness. He emphasized the war on terror and sought to build trust. George W. Bush could have given the same speech. The problem is that for every sentence uttered by Trump, you can find a polar opposite statement from the campaign trail. In Riyadh, he described Islam as "one of the great faiths." But last year, speaking of the United States, he said, "Islam hates us." That's indicative not of fickleness, but of a lack of interest in politics.
The fact that Trump is leading an administration centered around his family is something that appeals to people in the Persian Gulf. The Saudis value the fact that the new American president isn't as bothered by human rights as some of his predecessors. Trump needed success and the leaders in the Gulf region have money. In the end, he left with $110 billion in defense contracts in his hands. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also promised to provide $100 million for Ivanka Trump's proposed Women Entrepreneurs Fund, which is to be administered by the World Bank.
The visit went excellently. "Not a single hint of a protester," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, pleased. The fact that protests are prohibited in Saudi Arabia didn't even seem to cross his mind.
New York Times, Monday, May 22, Page 1:
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin laughed as Trump descended the gangway in Tel Aviv. "We are happy to see that America is back in the area," he said. Many of Rivlin's compatriots have not forgotten how, during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Obama visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but snubbed Israel.
During the trip, a change became palpable in Trump. He appeared to become more secure and more disciplined -- and he held back any possible outbursts, initially at least. Instead of the threats he often tweets out, this time he stuck to links to his speeches. His advisers seem to have him under better control when traveling. Besides, to this point, he had largely been well-received with little criticism, aside from a few newspaper editorials that criticized his weapons deals and what they saw as his excessive closeness with the Saudi ruling family.
But when he spoke, Trump's voice sounded is if he were on Valium. It wasn't that long ago that he criticized Obama for using a teleprompter, saying nobody wanted a scripted president. But it is Trump who is the teleprompter man now -- and he seldom goes off script.
Regardless, even if his staff is learning from his mistakes, they still haven't succeeded in making Trump eloquent. After his short tour through the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he wrote in the guestbook: "So amazing & will never forget!" It's something he could have written of a visit to Disneyland.
Breaking News, Politico, Tuesday, May 24:
'Former FBI Director John Brennan: Russia may have successfully recruited Trump campaign aides.'
The Palestinians also know how to win Trump over. Like the Saudis, they hung up huge banners prior to the U.S. president's visit showing him and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flanking the slogan: "The city of peace welcomes the man of peace." They were clearly visible to Trump as he drove in his convoy to Bethlehem, past a wall of the kind he would like to build on the American border with Mexico. Once in the city, he visited the Church of the Nativity and announced his intention to help the Palestinians boost their economy and combat terrorism.
The afternoon found him, arms crossed, on a podium in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was standing at the lectern next to him, gushing with praise for his new friend, but Trump seemed absent. He turned his head from side to side, squinted into the audience and rocked back and forth in his chair. The corners of his mouth curled up into a smile, which vanished just as suddenly as it had appeared. As always happens when he is forced to sit by as attention is lavished elsewhere, Trump was getting restive. He tapped his fingertips together and looked as though he had to exert significant amounts of self-control to prevent himself from jumping up and shoving Netanyahu aside.
When it was finally his turn to step up to the microphone, Trump's agitation disappeared. He expressed gratitude for the Israeli premier's hospitality, saying we had "a very unforgettable dinner. We had a great time. We talked about a lot of very, very important things." He added that the bond between the U.S. and Israel was "unshakable" -- and was forced to pause several times during his speech because of the applause.
Trump and his delegation didn't make the preparations for this stage of his journey easy. First, it was announced that Trump would speak at Masada, the historic Jewish fortress on the Dead Sea. But when it became clear that he would be unable to land at the site in his helicopter, the visit was called off, apparently because Trump didn't want to have to ride in the cable car to the mountaintop citadel. Later, the Americans abruptly cancelled a dinner that the Israeli defense minister had planned for Monday. And then it emerged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had had to order his cabinet to appear on the tarmac for the arrival of Air Force One after some members had indicated they would not attend.
Back in the museum, Trump said that the Palestinians were ready for peace. "I know you've heard it before. I am telling you -- that's what I do. They are ready to reach for peace." Suddenly, the audience wasn't clapping quite as enthusiastically as it had been before. The appearance demonstrated just how dependent Trump is on applause, how eagerly he laps up approval. He is almost like a junkie whose euphoria and pleasure at the apex of his high knows no bounds, but once it quickly begins to fade, he immediately needs a new fix.
What, though, is the mood like on board Air Force One? "Good," says the Los Angeles Times. "Okay," says Reuters.
A dozen reporters have been allowed to ride along in the president's official plane, the so-called pool, which includes news agencies and the largest newspapers and television channels. The rest of the press travels ahead in a chartered plane, in which there is a clear pecking order. In the front the plane to the left of the aisle, correspondents from CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox News and CNN can be found. On the right are the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, AFP, AP and Reuters. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy White House press secretary, usually sits in seat 4D, across from the restroom and next to the Bloomberg correspondent. Sean Spicer is traveling on Air Force One. Everybody else has seats further back, including Sky News, Politico and Vanity Fair, along with technicians, camera operators and foreign media representatives. The costs for the charter are divided up among the journalists, with everybody paying the same price regardless of where they sit.
Fantastic for Sales
Attitudes toward Trump on board range between skepticism and hostility. The prevailing view seems to be that, for democracy, the administration is a catastrophe, but from a journalistic perspective, it is a fantastic story, measurable in rising click rates, circulation and television ratings. Indeed, the New York Times had its best quarter in years at the end of 2016, with over 276,000 new digital subscriptions. Trump is fantastic for sales.
The problem is that most of the journalists traveling along with Trump hardly ever get any facetime with the president. Those who aren't part of the 13-member media pool that constantly accompanies Trump sit in a windowless press room and watch CNN or read Twitter, along with the summaries of fellow reporters who are closer to the action. They only realize they are in a different country when the hotel personnel greet them with "buon giorno" instead of "salam aleikum."
On one evening at about 10 p.m., a young man stuck his head through the door of the hotel press room. He was wearing a perfectly cut suit and looked as though he had just stepped out of an ice bath following two hours of ab training. "Hey guys, how are you? Still jetlagged?" Jared Kushner asked. "How's the trip so far? Are you enjoying it?"
He then spoke of short-term and long-term possibilities, ambitious goals and paradigm shifts in the Middle East. He sounded like his own Power Point presentation. Leaning against the wall to the right was Ivanka Trump, clutching her handbag. After about 10 minutes, she gave a thumb's up, the Trump family's favorite gesture, and disappeared with Jared into the night.
Donald Trump is a creation of the media age: Without journalists and television, he would never have become famous and likely would not have ascended to the presidency. As a result, Trump's relationship to the media is obsessive. It is his mirror, into which he gazes several times each day, his echo chamber, the justification for his existence. He watches a lot of television, showing a distinct preference for Fox News, and reads newspapers primarily to confirm his suspicion that they write nothing but tripe.
Trump's White House predecessors used to hold regular press conferences during extended trips to keep journalists informed. But Trump's team has decided that the risk is too great that their boss might lose his temper in the face of an uncomfortable question. Breitbart and other right-wing news outlets that are fans of Trump, after all, remained at home in the United States. Softball questions wouldn't be likely.
New York Times, Wednesday, May 24:
'Top Russian Officials Discussed How to Influence Trump Aides Last Summer'
And then she did it again. As Melania Trump stepped out of Air Force One at her husband's side in Rome, she pulled her hand away from him just as she had done in Tel Aviv. It looked as though she was trying to avoid holding hands with the president. It was just a brief scene, lasting hardly even a second, and it wasn't even particularly noticeable.
But the First Lady usually exhibits impeccable self-control. It seems unlikely that she simply forgot that half the world was watching. Perhaps it was intentional, a signal to demonstrate that she isn't the kind of woman who can be ordered around. But her husband won't likely have been particularly pleased by such images. Still, the trip had gone largely according to plan to that point. The Saudi Arabians were taken by the first lady's dignified demeanor and, of course, by the fact that she constantly remained in the background and left the stage to her husband. Her appearance in a dress that was rather short for Saudi tastes seemed of little concern.
During the visit to Pope Francis, however, Melania wore a black veil over her hair, making her look like a widow attending her deceased husband's funeral. And the pope wore a facial expression as though he were standing across from the devil incarnate. It was just Donald Trump. It was the moment at which the president must have realized that the pleasant, uncomplicated portion of his trip had come to an end. Now, he was in Europe, and he could no longer be sure that everybody he met actually liked him. Not after the campaign he ran and not after the delight he expressed following last year's Brexit referendum.
Trump's daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were also on hand for the meeting with the pope. Missing, however, was Sean Spicer, who is Catholic and who had reportedly been greatly looking forward to the opportunity to kiss the pope's ring. His absence was apparently a bit of diplomatic spitefulness on the part of the Holy See. Steve Bannon and Reine Priebus had been sent back to Washington earlier.
Pope Francis presented Trump with three books upon departure, one on family, another on the joy of the gospel and, finally, a copy of his 2015 encyclical on the need for urgent measures to combat climate change. "Well, I'll be reading them," said Trump, a man who has bragged in the past of having only ever read a single book to completion in his life -- his own.
How was your meeting with the pope, Mr. President? an AP journalist called out to him during a photo op. "He is something," Trump replied. "We had a fantastic meeting."
Report on CNN.com, Thursday, May 25:
'AG Sessions did not disclose Russia meetings in security clearance form, DOJ says.'
On Thursday morning, Trump arrived at a place he never wanted to be. He climbed out of his armored Cadillac and stepped into the 320-million-euro Europa Building in Brussels, where the European Council meets -- the heart of the EU. His trip back to reality was now complete, following his brief excursion to the Orient, where people received him as a savior -- or at least as someone who could sell high-quality weapons of war.
Trump was there for a meeting with Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, held in a nondescript conference room. The two Europeans were eager to elaborate to Trump on how they see the world and the trio talked for three-quarters of an hour behind closed doors. Later, Tusk would say that there was broad agreement on many issues, but he added: "I'm not 100 percent sure that we can say today -- we, meaning Mr. President and myself -- that we have a common position, common opinion about Russia." He said that he had wanted to deliver a message to Trump, that the friendship between Europe and the U.S. is based on values such as freedom, human rights and the respect for human dignity. It was a diplomatic slap in the face, similar to the one German Chancellor Angela Merkel had delivered shortly after Trump's election.
Afterward, Trump joined newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, of all people, for lunch. Trump, after all, had seemed to support Macron's opponent, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, in the election. When the two men shook hands for a closing photo op, the Frenchman grabbed Trump's hand and squeezed hard. Trump squeezed back. For a moment, they looked like opponents locked in a wrestling match. Trump wanted to let go, but Macron squeezed even harder until his knuckles turned white.
Not long later, the two met again for the opening ceremony of NATO's new headquarters. Behind him was a piece of twisted metal from the World Trade Center while next to him stood Angela Merkel. While Merkel gave a ceremonious speech about the historical importance of NATO, Trump spoke again about alliance funding -- about the "massive amounts of money" that 23 of the 28 NATO member states allegedly owe the United States. He then said: "I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost. I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful." The others stood next to him like schoolchildren. Merkel repeatedly looked at the ground while Macron grinned. The applause was reserved. To make sure that he was in the front row for the joint photo following the event, Trump rudely shoved aside the prime minister of Montenegro.
The leaders then enjoyed a meal together before Trump flew onward to Sicily in the evening for the G-7 summit starting on Friday. Prior to departure, Trump received word that a U.S. federal appeals court had refused to lift a temporary block on his revised travel ban for Muslims.
It was a reminder that he really can't get home quickly enough. There is plenty to do in Washington.