Trump starts travels abroad with unwanted baggage

A poster in Jerusalem welcoming Mr Donald Trump ahead of his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Among the leaders he will meet during his eight-day trip across the Middle East and Europe are Saudi King Salman, Pope Francis and French Pr
A poster in Jerusalem welcoming Mr Donald Trump ahead of his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Among the leaders he will meet during his eight-day trip across the Middle East and Europe are Saudi King Salman, Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Political crisis at home looms large over his meetings with allies in Mid-East and Europe

WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump has begun his first foreign trip as President with his White House engulfed in crisis and little prospect for a break from the drama disrupting his agenda.

His eight-day odyssey across the Middle East and Europe is packed with crucial sit-downs with key allies. Saudi King Salman. Pope Francis. Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron. Yet each of those meetings will be shadowed by Mr Trump's firing last week of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey.

In another day of head-spinning developments, Mr Trump poured more fuel on the firestorm himself before leaving Washington yesterday. Initially, he appeared to welcome the Justice Department's appointment of a special counsel to probe possible ties between Russia and his 2016 presidential campaign. Then he added a caveat.

"I respect the move," he said. "But the entire thing has been a witch hunt."

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"And there is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign - but I can always speak for myself - and the Russians," he added. "Zero."

Mr Trump's comments were delivered in a chaotic East Room news conference on Thursday where he stood alongside the President of Colombia, Mr Juan Manuel Santos.

As he dug in his heels, he further muddied his explanation of why he dismissed Mr Comey - and in doing so, offered a different version of events from one briefed to senators just hours earlier by Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein.

In that meeting, Mr Rosenstein outlined his decision to appoint former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel. Several senators said afterwards that Mr Rosenstein told them he was certain Mr Trump was going to dismiss Mr Comey, even before he wrote a memo critical of the director's performance.

But at his news conference, Mr Trump reverted to the White House's original claim that he was primarily responding to Mr Rosenstein's recommendation to dismiss Mr Comey. The President had later claimed that he had moved against Mr Comey in part because of his frustration over the FBI's handling of the Russia investigation.

"Director Comey was very unpopular with most people," Mr Trump said. "When I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision. Because you look at all of the people on the Democratic side, not only the Republican side, that were saying such terrible things about director Comey."

The prospect of Mr Mueller, a former federal prosecutor with a reputation for moral rectitude and an exacting management style, opening a wide-ranging investigation further rattled a demoralised White House staff.

There was a palpable sense among the senators who filed out of the briefing room that the centre of gravity in the investigation was shifting from Capitol Hill to Mr Mueller, who will spend weeks assembling a staff and a list of witnesses to interview.

"This pretty much shuts Congress down," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters. "Democrats, you got what you wanted. You got a special counsel. Now we will just move on. We are not prosecutors."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2017, with the headline 'Trump starts travels abroad with unwanted baggage'. Print Edition | Subscribe