For US presidents, their first big overseas trip is basically a debutante ball: Its meant to introduce the new president on the world stage and induct them into the high society of powerful world leaders. And for most US presidents, its an important but still relatively low-stakes affair, with kings, emirs, and presidents rolling out the red carpet to wine and dine the American president and stage smiling photo ops.
But Donald Trump isnt most US presidents, and the stakes couldnt be higher for his first trip abroad. All eyes will be watching Trumps every move to see if he can really hack it as a serious world leader or whether hell have the same stumbles abroad that hes been having at home.
And Trump is making his debut on the world stage in one of the most politically complex places on earth: the Middle East. He leaves late Friday for a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia, followed by a day-long trip to Israel on Monday (and then a short stop at the Vatican, meetings with European leaders in Sicily, and finally a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium).
Navigating the tricky world of Middle East diplomacy is tough for even the most seasoned diplomats and Trump is very emphatically not a seasoned diplomat. He tends to go off script, blurting out whatever pops into his head regardless of whether its even remotely appropriate or accurate.
With his young presidency mired in nonstop scandals, public relations gaffes, and political chaos, Trump could really use a big win right about now. And the White House is desperately praying that the big foreign trip will be that big win.
But early in his presidency Trump couldnt even manage to give a simple speech to a room full of CIA officers in front of a wall honoring their dead a speech meant to mend fences with and show support for the intelligence community without pissing off nearly the entire room full of CIA officers.
Just imagine the potential damage he could do if he decides to riff while laying a wreath at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Or if he ad libs while delivering his major speech on Islam to an audience of more than 50 leaders of Muslim countries.
Thats what has Trumps aides and more than a few ordinary Americans worried. This trip is Trumps first real chance to establish himself as a strong, capable world leader but only if he doesnt screw it up.
And so far, things arent looking too good.
During the campaign, Trump said that Islam hates us, called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, cited dubious polls he said showed that a sizable segment of the Muslim population has “great hatred towards Americans,” and falsely claimed that he personally witnessed thousands of Arabs celebrating in the streets of New Jersey on 9/11.
And, of course, just seven days after taking office, he signed an executive order temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
Now, he wants to mend relations with the leaders of Muslim world perhaps because, as foreign policy experts and his current national security adviser have been trying to tell him for a while now, he actually needs their help to fight terrorism.
Hes apparently decided the best way to do this is to give a major speech on Islam and radicalism or, sorry, radical Islamic terrorism, as Trump insists it must be called, despite the urging from his National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster to drop the potentially offensive phrase.
Hell be delivering this grand speech in Saudi Arabia, the country that hosts the two holiest sites in Islam, to an audience of more than 50 leaders of Muslim countries. And hes having his aide Stephen Miller who was one of the key architects of Trumps Muslim ban and has a long history of espousing anti-Muslim views write the speech.
Lets just pause for a second to let that sink in: Trumps plan to improve relations with the Muslim world is to travel to the birthplace of Islam and deliver a big speech written by his anti-Muslim adviser about the religions problem with extremism in front of more than 50 Muslim leaders.
To be sure, the Saudis themselves, along with many of the other leaders who will be at the meeting, have a lot of incentive to give Trump a fair amount of latitude even if he does say things they dont like. The Saudis are nearly giddy that they have Trump instead of Obama to deal with now. He is hawkish on Iran and, at least verbally, opposes the Iran nuclear deal, and hes more than willing to sign billion dollar arms deals with them without lecturing them on human rights.
But that only goes so far. Much of the Saudi royal familys legitimacy comes from their control over the two holiest sites in Islam. Which means that if Trump says something truly outrageous and offensive about Islam, theyll have a hard time just letting it go unchallenged.
When Trump chose to add Israel to his itinerary, it was supposed to be an easy win after all, Israel is one of Americas closest allies. And when he was elected, Trump promised to put an end the Obama administrations disdain and disrespect for Israel as soon as he took office and be the friend Israel truly deserved.
Surely, theres no way Trump could mess this one up. Its a slam-dunk the perfect opportunity for Trump to show Americans and the world that not only is he a capable leader, hes even more savvy at diplomacy than Barack Obama
You might already see where this is heading.
Earlier this month, reports came out that Trump would be visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, during his Israel trip making him the first sitting US president to ever do so.
Past US presidents have avoided visiting the Western Wall while in office because it happens to be at the center of one of the most contentious issues in the Middle East: control over the holy sites of Jerusalem.
The wall is located in the Old City of Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan during the Six-Day War in 1967. But some Muslims believe the wall is part of the al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy site in Islam, and therefore should be controlled by the Palestinians (or at the very least not controlled by Israel).
The international community and official US policy historically doesnt recognize Israels authority over the Western Wall, asserting that the final status of who controls what in Jerusalem is subject to negotiations with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu and most of the Israeli public, as well as world Jewry and many politically powerful American Evangelical Christians are adamant that the Western Wall, and indeed all of Jerusalem, is and always will be part of Israel.
So by visiting the Western Wall during an official state visit to Israel, Trump would be making a very symbolic gesture implying that the US recognizes that the Western Wall does indeed belong to Israel.
It was a huge deal, and many Israelis were ecstatic, with some speculating that Trump might use the occasion to announce that hed finally be fulfilling his campaign promise of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (yet another contentious issue). Netanyahus office even asked the Trump team in charge of planning the visit if the prime minister could accompany the president to the wall which would be an even more symbolic gesture.
And thats when the Trump administration royally stepped in it.
Israels Channel 2 news reported on Monday that a senior member of Trumps staff rejected the request, saying it would be a private visit. Then when the Israelis asked if they could at least send a camera crew along to film Trumps visit, things got heated. What are you talking about? the Trump official reportedly fired back. Its none of your business. Its not even part of your responsibility. Its not your territory. Its part of the West Bank.
The Israelis were stunned, and the prime ministers office immediately put out a statement demanding the White House clarify. An unnamed White House spokesperson told CNN Tuesday morning that “These comments were not authorized by the White House. They do not reflect the US position, and certainly not the President’s position.”
Okay, then. Problem solved, crisis over. Right?
At a press conference just a few hours later, Trumps National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster twice refused to answer direct questions about whether the administration considers the Western Wall to be part of Israel. McMaster would only say that the question “sounds like a policy decision.
When asked the same question by reporters a little while later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded that The Western Wall is obviously one of the holiest sites in Jewish faith. Its clearly in Jerusalem. But, as my Vox colleague Sarah Wildman points out, that response actually did not answer the question on whether the wall was in Israel. The city wasnt in question, the nationality of that city was.
The White House doesnt seem to have made any further attempts to clarify, at least in public. Which, given how theyve done so far, is probably a good call. And as of now Trumps still going to the Western Wall for a private visit. But even if they have managed to smooth things over with the Israelis, its not exactly the best way to start things off.
On top of that, Trumps also planning to travel to Bethlehem to meet with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas a decision that both surprised and irked many on the right in Israel who would very much prefer that the new US president focus solely on Israel and give the Palestinian leadership the cold shoulder.
In just a few short months in office, Trump has already become known for his short attention span, his bizarre aversion to any kind of physical exercise more strenuous than golf, his strong dislike for staying anywhere that isnt Trump Tower or a Trump resort, and his general insistence on acting like a rich, spoiled businessman instead of a public servant and the leader of the free world.
Thats proven problematic enough here at home. Now hes embarking on a grueling, nine-day, multi-country trip to the Middle East (and later Europe).
Trump was scheduled to deliver a speech at the ancient desert fortress of Masada, a symbol of Jewish resilience and courage but Newsweek reported today that Trump abruptly canceled the Masada visit when Israel told him he couldn’t land his personal helicopter on top of the site and would just have to take the cable car up just like every other previous visiting US president has.
And then theres Trumps decision to visit Yad Vashem, Israels official Holocaust memorial museum. Yad Vashem is a traditional stopping point for almost all foreign officials visiting Israel. Barack Obama spent an hour in the museum. George W. Bush stayed even longer, explains Voxs Wildman.
And Trump? Advance readouts of Trumps itinerary reveal he plans a whopping 15 minutes, Wildman writes. Trump may have a notoriously short attention span, but one would think that a president who has been accused of dabbling in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denialism might try to make just a tiny bit more effort when it comes to visiting one of the most emotionally and historically symbolic sites to the worlds Jews.
In fact, Trumps short attention span is so well known that NATO is reportedly scrambling to tailor its upcoming meeting with Trump in Brussels on the 25th in order to avoid taxing him too much. The alliance is telling heads of state to limit talks to two to four minutes at a time during the discussion, writes Foreign Policys Robbie Gramer.
Its like theyre preparing to deal with a child someone with a short attention span and mood who has no knowledge of NATO, no interest in in-depth policy issues, nothing, one source told Gramer. Theyre freaking out.
Terrific. Trump (and, well, America, to be quite honest) really needs to be able to come across as, at the very least, a moderately competent leader during this trip. But so far, he looks like a bumbling fool at best and a fussy toddler at worst.
And the trip hasnt even started yet. God only knows what might happen once hes there jet-lagged, cranky, and totally out of his element.
“Something will go wrong. That we know, but we don’t know what,” one Israeli politician told CNN, only half-joking, when asked about Trumps upcoming trip. “A successful visit right now is for it to be over.
There are a lot of things Trump isnt: a professional diplomat, a nuanced thinker, a seasoned politician, a polished orator, an adventurous world traveler.
But he is a showman. He has charisma. He knows how to work a crowd. And many, many people whove met with him one on one have come away saying that he was a lot more charming in person than they ever expected, and much more prone to listening to their views rather than simply repeating his own. Those arent skills to snub your nose at, especially when it comes to schmoozing with foreign leaders.
Hes also someone who appreciates ostentatious wealth, over-the-top pomp and circumstance, and flattery. And hes going to be in places like freaking Saudi Arabia, where hell receive a red-carpet welcome from some of the most ostentatiously wealthy people on the planet. Hell be put up in the most lavish rooms that will probably make a Trump Hotel look like a Motel 6 and fed only the finest cuisine.
And pretty much everywhere he goes, hell be treated like the most powerful man in the world because in these meetings at least, he will be.
Trump loves that. And coming off of four straight months of being battered daily by mounting scandals and scathing criticism, and having his every move blocked, reversed, or ignored by judges and members of Congress who, it turns out, have just as much power as he has hell probably love it even more.
And while hell no doubt still be as obsessed as ever with reading or watching every single thing said about him in the US media while hes abroad, even just the physical removal from the insanity of Washington may be a welcome respite. Indeed, that seems to be part of the reason why he goes to Mar-a-Lago so often on the weekends instead of staying in the White House.
As anyone whos ever traveled abroad knows, no matter how connected you still are to Twitter, the hubbub of politics back home always seems to feel a bit more distant once youre in a foreign country. And that could only be a good thing for Trump.
But, perhaps most important of all, Trump surely knows whats on the line here. If he stays on script and if the script is vetted by some of the more sober-minded and experienced members of his Cabinet to keep out anything catastrophically explosive he just might pull it off.
Or, maybe more likely, he wont.