New goal for Trump's first foreign trip: Damage control

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following meetings in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
US President Donald Trump speaks to the press with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following meetings in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - For months, President Donald Trump's senior advisers had planned his first foreign trip with hopes of investing it with historic grandeur: a tour of the world's three great monotheistic religions, capped by an address to the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia that will serve as Trump's answer to the speech former President Barack Obama gave in Cairo in 2009.

Now, though, a cascade of damaging disclosures about the president and his relationship with Russia has shredded the White House's narrative. Trump will go abroad on Friday less as an anti-Obama figure than as a latter-day Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton - a wounded president fleeing political storms at home for an uncertain welcome overseas.

The news that Trump asked FBI Director James Comey, to drop the bureau's investigation of his former national security adviser Michael Flynn was the latest, most jarring development in a week already consumed by questions about his dismissal of Comey and his disclosure of classified intelligence from Israel to visiting Russian diplomats.

While administration officials said they were not worried that Trump's disclosure of secret information to the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, would burn America's intelligence-sharing relationships with Israel and other partners, they acknowledged it would be a distraction on a trip that will have no shortage of other complexities.

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"It's a huge burden on the American psyche to have a president go abroad when a sword of Damocles is hanging over them at home," said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history and an expert on the presidency at Rice University.

"It turns our president, instead of representing the best of America on the road, into a travelling can of worms."

Brinkley likened the timing of Trump's trip to a visit Nixon made to the Middle East in 1974 as the Watergate scandal was closing in on him, and Clinton's trip to Russia, Britain and Northern Ireland in 1998 during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

For his part, Trump, a confirmed homebody, has expressed dread about the trip, asking aides whether it can be shortened to five days from nine.

His advisers concede that the intense schedule - dozens of interactions with leaders from the Middle East and Europe, over a range of delicate issues - could produce unscripted, diplomatically perilous moments.

Even beyond the tempests surrounding the president, Israeli officials expressed alarm about the unwillingness of Trump's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, to publicly affirm that the Western Wall, one of the holiest prayer sites in the Jewish faith, was part of Israel.

McMaster's statement came during a White House briefing about the trip that was largely overtaken by the furor over the intelligence disclosure. After going through the details of Trump's travel - coffee with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, a wreath-laying in Israel - McMaster was bombarded with questions like whether allies could trust the United States enough to share sensitive intelligence with it.

"I'm not concerned at all," he said, asserting that Trump's disclosures to Lavrov and the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kisylak, were "wholly appropriate."

But McMaster dodged when asked whether Trump believed the Western Wall was in Israel. The question arose after a report on Israeli television that a US official involved in planning the visit had rebuffed a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join Trump on a visit to the wall because, the official said, it was not in Israel.

The White House disavowed that statement Monday, saying it did not reflect the president's thinking. But McMaster confirmed that no Israeli leaders would join Trump in his visit to the wall - in line with long-standing American practice - and he declined to say whether Trump viewed the Western Wall as being part of Israel.

"That sounds like a policy decision," he said.

Current US policy is to treat East Jerusalem, where the wall is, as Israeli-occupied territory. Israeli troops seized the area around the wall in 1967 during the Six-Day War, and it has become a highly visible symbol of the disputed nature of Jerusalem, which Palestinians also claim as their capital.

Trump's new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, paid a visit to the wall as one of his first acts after arriving in the country. And Trump promised repeatedly during the 2016 campaign that he would move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

"He's in real danger of blowing up Jerusalem as an issue that divides rather than unites two of the Abrahamic religions," said Martin S. Indyk, a US ambassador to Israel under Clinton.

"That part of the visit needs to be handled with extreme care."

Trump's disclosure of Israeli intelligence raises a separate set of issues. Netanyahu, who is determined to have a successful visit, is not likely to make an issue of this with the president, analysts said. But he will face intense pressure from his own intelligence services.

"For them, it is a question of how they acquire information and how they perceive threats against Israel," said Dennis Ross, who has advised several presidents on Middle East issues.

"This will inevitably produce a discussion about the ground rules."

Aaron David Miller, another longtime Middle East diplomat, said, "This will likely break crockery, jeopardising sources and additional information on ISIS operations."

But he added that Netanyahu "will see no reason to exacerbate the incident, and may well see some political advantage in giving Trump some cover and the benefit of the doubt."

Some analysts speculated that Trump's disclosure of Israeli intelligence might force his hand on the embassy, since he would need to make a goodwill gesture to the Israelis.

"It would show that the president of the United States and his administration understand where lies the truth," Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security agency and current Likud member of Parliament, said in an interview.

"And that is what Jerusalem is for the state of Israel. It's not just a symbolic step. It's more profound than that."

In Israel, government officials refused to comment on the report that Trump's disclosure of intelligence was supplied by Israel. Some former officials familiar with Israel's strategic and security relations with the United States said they did not have enough detailed information about the incident to assess what damage was done - or the possible fallout.

"The entire thing hinges on the specifics," said Eran Lerman, a former deputy director of Israel's National Security Council, who handled Israel's strategic dialogue with the United States.

"Yes, you try to protect your sources as best you can. But on the other hand, if you have actionable intelligence, you want to talk to people who can take action."

Lerman, who teaches at Shalem College in Jerusalem and is a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, pointed to what he called Trump's "lack of serious grounding in intelligence craft."

But he added, "I cannot judge if the president made the right call or the wrong call."

Israel and the United States have no choice but to share intelligence, he said, though some rewriting of the ground rules might now be necessary.

"At the end of the day, the community of like-minded nations cannot afford to tear the fabric of cooperation apart," he said, "but there may be a need to sew it with more sturdy threads here and there."