President Trump goes wheels up at 2:10 p.m. Friday for Riyadh. His nine-day tour will then take him to Jerusalem, the West Bank, Rome, Brussels and Sicily.
Former Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who has one of the longest memories in Washington, sees parallels between the president's first foreign trip and a journey Richard Nixon took to the Middle East as Watergate consumed his presidency in June 1974. It came at the very time the Watergate special prosecutor was in court seeking the actual White House tapes of presidential conversations (do such tapes exist now?) and congressional committees were beginning to look into impeachment. "Back then, ironically, Nixon visited leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Israel in an unsuccessful attempt to strengthen the ceasefire agreement that halted fighting in the Yom Kippur, Arab-Israeli war," Pincus writes for the Cipher Brief. "Nixon returned home to challenge and lose his Supreme Court argument over the tapes that set him down the path to resigning the presidency."
Trying to look at the bright side, the Washington Post's David Ignatius notes in his column that "domestic scandals can have the odd effect of encouraging diplomacy abroad": "Nixon made major peace deals in the Middle East after the Watergate debacle began. But even so, that story didn't end happily for Nixon or the United States."
• While many presidents have tried to use statesmanship abroad to distract from their problems at home, the Trump brand of diplomacy has some analysts worried that the tour might only make his troubles worse, Post diplomatic correspondents Anne Gearan and Carol Morello write in a preview of what to expect.
James Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation who has close ties to the White House,told them that an overseas trip presents a real opportunity, given all the turmoil in Washington. "Just being out of town for two weeks is probably great," he said. "The great thing about a trip, they control the environment, you control the interaction, you control the agenda and you control the press access. If you fumble on one of these trips, it's nobody's fault but your own."
• Despite Trump's brooding and desperation to turn the page, the truth is that he doesn't really want to go abroad. "In recent days, Mr. Trump has groused to several friends that he is not looking forward to leaving his new White House cocoon," Maggie Haberman and Mike Shear report in the New York Times. "At one point, he barked at an aide that he thought his first tour abroad should be only about half as long. He will have to abandon his well-known preference for sleeping in his own bed (or in one at the hotels or golf resorts he owns) as he hops between . . . places without a Trump-branded property. . . . In private, Mr. Trump's advisers acknowledge that they are concerned about his off-script eruptions, his tendency to be swayed by flattery and the possibility that foreign leaders may present him with situations he does not know how to handle. They worry he will accidentally commit the United States to something unexpected, and they have tried to caution him about various scenarios."
• The cloud hanging over Trump will follow him and his entourage past the water's edge. The Washington Post's Michael Birnbaum reports from Brussels: "Washington's closest allies in Europe are increasingly worried that rising political chaos in the United States is undermining the strength of the most powerful nation in the world. In conversations with more than two dozen current and former European ministers, lawmakers, diplomats, intelligence officials and military officers in recent days, there was a common theme: . . .. Many fear that mounting domestic scandals could sap Washington's ability to respond to challenges ranging from Russia to terrorism to North Korea." The quotes in the story paint a portrait of a continent on edge:
"It's disturbing," said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who works on U.S. affairs. "The vacuum may encourage people all over the world to seize the moment of an absent United States."
"One senior European intelligence officer said if his agency ever came into possession of information that was incriminating to Trump or his circle, it would hold back from sharing with the United States for fear the U.S. president would seek revenge."
• Israel was supposed to be one of the easiest stops on Trump's tour, but it has become the most awkward for a host of reasons. It offers another case study, if you needed one, of the challenges such an inexperienced president faces as he tries to tackle complex problems.
This is how the visit is playing in Friday's Jerusalem Post: "As the (city) is poised to line its streets with festive American flags, a trip that was expected to be one long, smiling photo-op has suddenly gone way off script, as the spring love affair comes closer to hitting the reality of the summer heat in the Middle East."
The top-secret information Trump slipped to the Russians during their Oval Office meeting last week came from an Israeli source, according to several news reports. Multiple U.S. officials have said that this was the single most valuable source of information on external plotting by the Islamic State. Iran is one of Israel's biggest enemies and Russia's closest allies. Trump's disclosure possibly puts the source and lives at risk, as well as undermines the war effort against ISIS, experts say. This intelligence was so sensitive that the U.S. was not even permitted to share it with our closest allies who we share other super-sensitive information with as part of standard practice.
White House officials then let it be known this week that Trump will not move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, at least for now. There had been some internal conversations about using this trip to do so as a way to follow through on one of the president's signature campaign promises, but he was persuaded by career diplomats and Arab leaders that doing so would complicate efforts to negotiate peace.
Adding insult to injury has been a donnybrook over the Western Wall. "Israel's Channel 2 reported that during a planning meeting between U.S. and Israeli officials, the Israelis were told that Trump's visit to the Western Wall was private, Israel did not have jurisdiction in the area and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not welcome to accompany Trump there," according to Reuters. "The statement that the Western Wall is in an area in the West Bank was received with shock," said an official in Netanyahu's office.
During a briefing about the trip, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster twice refused to answer reporter questions about whether Trump believes the Western Wall is part of Israel. Press Secretary Sean Spicer also declined to answer, saying only that it is "in Jerusalem."
Meanwhile, pro-Israel hardliners inside the Trump administration are sending the opposite messages. "The Western Wall is part of Israel, and I think that is how we have always seen it," U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said on the Christian Broadcasting Network Tuesday. And the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, former Trump attorney David Friedman, went straight to the wall after landing at the airport.
Another story souring the mood of Israelis is Trump's cancelation of a planned visit to and speech at Masada. After authorities told him that he could not land his helicopter on top of the ancient mountain fortress (a UNESCO-listed site), he said he'd rather not go at all. Newsweek's Jack Moore notes that both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were perfectly happy to take the cable car up. (I hiked to the top when I went in 2013.)
A visit to Jerusalem's impressive Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, was also cut short at Trump's request. Local press reports say he's scheduled to drop by for just 15 minutes, despite requests that he spend much longer. That is barely enough time to sign a guest book.
• The cover story in next week's Economist, aptly enough, is about the legacy of the six-day war: "Unexpectedly, there may be a new opportunity to make peace: Trump wants to secure 'the ultimate deal' . . . Netanyahu appears as nervous as the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, seems upbeat (about Trump). . . . The outlines of peace are well known. . . . The fact that such a deal is familiar does not make it likely. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas will probably string out the process-and try to ensure the other gets blamed for failure. Distracted by scandals, Mr Trump may lose interest; Mr Netanyahu may lose power (he faces several police investigations); and Mr Abbas may die (he is 82 and a smoker). The limbo of semi-war and semi-peace is, sadly, a tolerable option for both."
The settlements remain a big hurdle. Trump has backed away from the decades-old U.S. commitment to a Palestinian state, though he had a cordial meeting recently at the White House with Abbas. William Booth, in a great story from Bethlehem that just posted, explains how Palestinian payments to prisoners and the families of "martyrs" will be a very big challenge for the two sides in any serious peace talks.
If you looked at Trump's itinerary four months ago, all these problems with Israel would have been surprising. Trump exempted the Jewish state from his tough-talking, isolationist rhetoric during the campaign. He repeatedly said no one loves the country more than he does, and Netanyahu said Israel has "no greater friend" than Trump when he took office.
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