The firing of FBI Director James Comey will complicate President Donald Trump’s first foreign trips, with world leaders increasingly skeptical of working with a White House clouded in turmoil.
The sudden removal of the man who was investigating Trump’s ties to Russia has added an unexpected layer of intrigue before the president’s ambitious journey to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Rome before meeting with NATO leaders in Brussels. The purpose of the trip is to demonstrate how his “America first” vision isn’t inconsistent with the U.S. ideals of democracy and freedom that allies have come to depend on.
“When a president travels abroad, it’s never good to advertise domestic political vulnerabilities or to look impulsive and erratic. Trump has done both of these things,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who was an ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.
The United States is undoubtedly the most important player on the international stage, and whether he likes it or not, whatever Trump does is major news around the world, said Nicholas Rostow, who served as national security adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
“And people are trying to figure it out and they have to react to it – or react to him,” Rostow said.
The direction of the White House under Trump is already the subject of intense debate overseas. Charles Kupchan, who was senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said Comey’s firing raised more concerns about whether the United States was pulling away from its longtime position as the world’s leader on democratic ideals.
“Now there is concern that we may be falling off the wagon and that objective no longer motivates the United States under this president,” Kupchan said.
Even before Comey’s firing, world leaders had been asking their ambassadors in Washington to explain what’s going on in the United States and how important the Russia probe might be.
Quickly recovering from the Comey controversy is critical to establishing that Trump can be a dependable international partner.
“To me the big issue is how does the president put out coherent messages on his domestic and foreign policy when there is so much incoherence in his White House. So much dysfunctionality,” said James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University.
The Comey firing, however, may not move the needle much in a world where views on Trump are already well formed, said Richard Miles, who was director for North America on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
“If I were a foreign government, I’d say this guy is decisive and maybe to be taken more seriously than a lot of pundits and commentators suggest he should be,” Rostow said.
But Kori Schake, a former George W. Bush administration National Security Council member, said in a blog post on Foreign Policy that Trump’s behavior looks autocratic, more like Russia or Turkey than most U.S. European allies, and will make those allies hesitate to associate with us. She said it’s particularly concerning considering Trump might be soon seeking NATO assistance for more allied troops in Afghanistan, sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and more advantageous trade deals.
“Germany’s Merkel and new French President Emmanuel Macron are already being championed as the new leaders of the free world; our president will need their support more than they will need his,” Schake wrote.