President Donald Trump’s supporters see his overseas trip as a chance to escape the non-stop revelations related to Russia, but more likely he’ll drag the controversy with him overseas – adding another dimension to an already tricky travel schedule.
That has left foreign policy analysts wondering which Donald Trump is going to show up for his first foreign trip, which has him visiting five countries in the Middle East and Europe over nine days.
Will it be the populist, “America first” president who declared to union workers on April 4 that he was “not president of the world?”
Or, will it be the Donald Trump who a week later stood with the secretary-general of NATO – an organization he’d earlier declared obsolete – and pledged to work with the decades-old alliance to clean up a messy world?
On issues big and small, Trump has repeatedly flipped back and forth between isolationism and interventionism, and world leaders are eager to find out which perspective will emerge on a trip that is already being viewed with trepidation by foreign policy experts.
“What we don’t know is which of these, the more intense solidarity Donald Trump or the more skeptical Donald Trump we’re going to see,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who was an ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.
Trump leaves Friday on his ambitious nine-day jaunt. White House officials said he’ll reassert American leadership during the tour of three religious capitals in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Rome before sitting down with NATO leaders in Brussels and G7 counterparts in Sicily.
But the backdrop that can upset the trip will be the endless stream of revelations that have plagued his administration since the day in January when he was sworn in. They’ve run the gamut from sharing of sensitive national security information with Russian officials to the disclosure that his former national security adviser was being paid by Turkish interests when he made a key foreign policy decision.
Trump declared Thursday that he’s the subject of the “greatest witch hunt” in political history after former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named special counsel to oversee the investigation into the Trump team’s ties to Russia.
Trump has provided two very distinct perspectives when it comes to foreign policy: One who sees Americans are being taken “advantage of,” wants to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and views NATO as obsolete. The other basks in the adulation of a West looking for American leadership, an Israel working to make peace with Palestinians, and a NATO that he is eager to cooperate with.
Foreign leaders are playing a guessing game trying to determine whether Trump’s positions will veer in a more radical direction favored by his controversial chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who’s pressed for the dismantlement of the Iran nuclear deal, the end of the One China policy, and the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reflected the cynical view of Trump’s views by threatening to “break up” the United States by encouraging Ohio and Austin, Texas, to split from the rest of America after Trump praised British plans to leave the EU and predicted that other countries will follow Britain leaving the union.
NATO leaders are worried. They shortened their planned meeting with Trump to just a couple of hours to reduce the chance for gaffes. The centerpiece of the president’s visit to Brussels is now a tour of the new NATO building, which will open in about a year.
As a builder, they think Trump will be impressed by the construction. And they want to keep the visit focused on such activities and not on statements that might turn into polemics.
“It’s really meant to be more of a touching base for the president,” said Heather Conley, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs. “To make sure the president feels comfortable around a NATO table.”