Trump's first visit overseas as US president may be overshadowed by White House in crisis

US President Donald Trump's eight-day odyssey across the Middle East and Europe is packed with crucial sit-downs with key allies.
US President Donald Trump's eight-day odyssey across the Middle East and Europe is packed with crucial sit-downs with key allies. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - US President Donald Trump was set to depart on Friday (May 19) for his first foreign trip as president with the 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 FBI director James Comey.

That controversy - along with the ongoing probe of possible ties between Mr Trump's campaign and Russia - risks interrupting any moment of the trip. It adds to a big challenge for a president who had no experience in foreign affairs prior to his election and has already suffered repeated stumbles in encounters with other leaders.

Yet, if he and his team score some early policy successes on the first leg of the trip, they may gain some respite from their domestic troubles. It would offer a sort of lifeline: a chance for Mr Trump to arrest rising anxiety about his capacity to fill the role as leader of the free world.

"The bigger question that's begun to arise is his fitness for the presidency, to put it bluntly; whether he is up to the job," said Mr Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If he performs well on this trip, it begins to quiet or answer this question. If he performs poorly, it will add fuel to the fire."

Though most foreign governments closely monitor US politics, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters the controversy surrounding Mr Trump isn't likely to affect his dealings abroad.

"The people in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what's happening domestically here," Mr Tillerson said.

Mr Trump's trip is also a key test for his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whom Mr Trump has entrusted with much of his Middle East portfolio and the trip's planning.

He will shoulder the blame if the trip goes awry, one person familiar with their thinking said.

"The real risk will come in the unscripted moments," said Mr Haass, who served in the State Department under former President George W. Bush.

The travel may also help shape Mr Trump's attitude toward other key aides travelling with him who have been a source of frustration to the embattled president: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Mr Trump's wife Melania and daughter Ivanka will accompany him for portions of the trip. Mr Tillerson will join him for most of the trip; Defence Secretary Jim Mattis will join Mr Trump at the Nato conference.

Mr Trump and his team regard the trip as an opportunity for the US President to unify Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders against extremism, a senior administration official said.

Mr Trump will seek to define the conflict with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorists as one of good versus evil, rather than the West versus Islam, the official said.

His aides also believe Mr Trump can signal that the US is re-establishing its global leadership role while emphasising its allies' responsibility to share more of the burden of their own defence, and increase investment and partnerships that can create US jobs, the official said.

Mr Kushner has been developing the itinerary since last November. Saudi Arabia won the first stop, the official said, after promising large US investments - including purchases of hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of military equipment in the next decade and US$40 billion (S$56 billion) from its sovereign wealth fund.

Saudi officials have told the White House that King Salman will publicly say it's the responsibility of leaders throughout the Middle East to defeat radical ideology in the region, according to another administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to preview the visit.

This official said the White House regards that speech as a significant development that could draw other Arab nations closer to the US.

Mr Trump began thinking about the trip just after his election, and he is deeply involved in the preparations, including by writing much of the speeches he is to deliver in Saudi Arabia and Israel addressing extremism and peace efforts, the first administration official said.

But the trip comes at a difficult time inside the White House, where there is rampant fear among staff that the President may replace them even as they scramble to manage fallout from Mr Trump's decision to fire Mr Comey and his public remarks afterwards.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has urged less drama, while Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, another Republican, has characterised the situation as a "downward spiral".

Aides turned up the sound on televisions in the West Wing at one point earlier this week to prevent reporters from hearing an argument between staff in Mr Spicer's office.

Mr Haass said he would have advised Mr Trump not to attempt a trip of this scale even before the Comey controversy. Mr Trump is still learning foreign policy basics and has not notched many accomplishments. But now, Mr Trump must go forward with his plans if only because not doing so would reinforce a sense of crisis.

The senior administration official said speculation about the impact of the Comey crisis on the trip is overblown, and that the White House doesn't view the trip as an opportunity to redeem the President or change the subject.

Instead, the official said, the President and his team are confident that the substance of the trip - including major national security and business announcements - will generate headlines that can push Mr Comey, Russia and the appointment of a special counsel off of front pages.

That may depend largely on Mr Trump himself. "Will he be a solid representative for the US who is quite staid and sensible like most presidents are when they go overseas, or will he carry forward the populism and bombast and buffoonery?" said British political strategist Matthew Elliott, who served as chief executive of the pro-Brexit "Vote Leave" campaign.

"Actually a lot of his mistakes are self-imposed, reacting badly to things, and feeding the story rather than tamping it down, so if his attention is diverted from the domestic stage, it could actually buy him a bit of respite rather than following him around the world," Mr Elliott said.