President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip was always going to be an ambitious undertaking, even without members of his own party talking about subpoenas and possible grounds for impeachment at home.
But now his small band of harried advisers—almost all of whom will be crammed together on Air Force One—must try to contain an unfolding domestic crisis while managing a complex five-country tour with skittish allies across two continents and three time zones.
At the White House, multiple officials said, there have been no internal discussions about canceling or altering the complex junket—even in the face of a Russia-related crisis at home.
White House officials who met for a planning meeting Wednesday morning said they remain hopeful the trip will allow the president to advance his foreign policy agenda—despite the potential for off-script moments, heightened by jet lag-addled travel for a homebody president who generally prefers the comforts of sleeping in his own bed.
“The trip is going to be helpful because it’s an opportunity to move forward his positive agenda for foreign policy,” National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton said.
Despite the distractions at home, Trump still plans to deliver his first major foreign policy speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, an address that is being written by policy adviser Stephen Miller and a committee of aides. And he still intends to give a speech in Israel, though logistical issues forced the administration to trade in the desired sweeping backdrop of the ancient Masada fortress for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where Trump said Wednesday he would “reaffirm our unbreakable alliance with the Jewish State.” He also will deliver brief remarks at the NATO meeting in Brussels.
Meanwhile, aides will be containing the fallout of a week of self-inflicted crises, which reached a tipping point Tuesday night with reports the president had asked former FBI Director James Comey to end his inquiry into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — a request that has prompted allegations Trump obstructed justice. On Wednesday, when Trump is scheduled to be in Rome to meet with the Pope, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has asked Comey to appear at a congressional hearing.
Trump allies said the expected warm reception in Saudi Arabia and Israel could boost the spirits of a president who has been frustrated and isolated in the White House, where he is still mulling a shakeup of his West Wing team.
Aides are cautiously optimistic about a trip Trump’s team has been planning since the transition, when Saudi officials reached out to the camp at Trump Tower and requested a visit to improve relations between the two countries, a White House official said. Son-in-law Jared Kushner has been “consumed” by helping to organize the Saudi piece of the trip, one aide said.
Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell and Defense Secretary James Mattis traveled last month to meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia to ensure there would be enough policy substance to call the trip a win. The Washington Post reported that Trump plans to announce the creation of an “Arab NATO” to push back against Iran.
But even with months of planning and trips by teams from the National Security Council and the White House to all the countries on the itinerary, there remains room for error, according to more than half a dozen foreign policy experts who have planned official foreign trips.
“Chaos comes with any trip, for any leader, under any circumstances,” said Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. “This is the team’s maiden voyage. Many of them have never served in government before and may not understand what they’re about to encounter and how difficult it is to manage a situation in someone else’s country.”
Even without the backdrop of a domestic crisis, “we usually found that by day four, the principal was pretty unhappy, you were unhappy, and the prospect for additional slip-ups or miscommunications was getting greater by the day,” Smith said. “It surprised many of us to see them set out such an ambitious agenda so early.”
President Barack Obama’s first trip abroad as president was a one-day jaunt to Ottawa. Before him, President George W. Bush kicked off his international travel with a trip to San Cristobal, Mexico. Trump has put off his foreign travel — the last two presidents left the country for the first time in February — but is going for a showier junket.
At this point, people close to Trump said, modifying the trip in any way would give the impression that the White House is in crisis mode—an image they are trying to fight. On Wednesday, Trump traveled to New London, Conn., as planned, to deliver a commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
“Adversity makes you stronger,” Trump said, without explicitly mentioning the firestorm created by the revelation of Comey’s detailed memos about his conversations with the president. “Don’t give in, don’t back down, and never stop doing what you know is right.”
The best outcome for the trip, experts said, would be for Trump to come home with a few achievements and no major gaffes abroad.
“I’d be leaning more toward cancellation if I thought it likely the tumult Trump keeps unleashing were going to settle down rather than continue unabated,” said Kori Schake, a former official in the George W. Bush State Department who has also co-authored a book with Mattis. She added that because expectations are so low, the trip could come off as a success—although that depends on elements outside of the president’s control.
“It will be a success if there aren’t enormous protests in Europe,” she said. “It will be a success if countries of the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and we can find broader common ground to fight both Sunni and Shi’ia terrorism.”
Those are big ifs, Schake said.
“The problems of distraction will be huge,” she said, “and they are problems of the President’s own making.”