By Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker,
As the White House was engulfed by a crisis of its own making — the abrupt firing of the FBI director — President Trump received an unlikely visitor: Henry Kissinger, the Republican Party’s leading elder statesman, who came to deliver a tutorial on foreign affairs last Wednesday ahead of the president’s first overseas trip.
Kissinger was not alone. In the days leading up to Trump’s high-risk debut on the world stage — a nine-day, five-stop, four-nation tour — the Oval Office has morphed into a graduate seminar room, with a rotating roster of policy experts briefing the president.
Or that was the original plan.
As frequently is the case around Trump, distractions were everywhere. His tête-à-tête with Kissinger briefly turned into a photo opportunity, with the former secretary of state sitting by silently as Trump made his first public comments on his dismissal of James B. Comey from the FBI.
Despite the maelstrom — and the president’s personal obsession with the Comey saga — Trump still made time to start preparing for a trip that could become a resounding triumph or go horribly awry with just one mistake.
On foreign soil, Trump will have to navigate diplomatic land mines — from negotiating peace between the Israelis and Palestinians to reassuring jittery European allies to following protocol in greeting Pope Francis.
“He’s going to be in the spotlight, under the microscope, and for a lot of people in the world this will be a chance to see him ‘in action,’ ” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “In part because the expectations are modest, he can more than meet them. If the trip is simply normal, then it’s a success.”
Trump’s advisers say the president understands the stakes and is taking his preparation seriously. His team deliberately scaled back his public schedule in the two weeks leading up to his planned Friday departure, even though much of his time last week was eaten up by the Comey drama and talks about shaking up his West Wing staff.
Trump’s carefully choreographed trip begins in Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Muslim partners from across the Arab world and beyond to seek alliances in combating Islamic State terrorists. From there, he heads to Israel to underscore the United States’ commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. He also will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Trump then travels to Rome, where he is scheduled meet the pontiff and discuss religious freedom and human rights issues. Trump will attend a summit of NATO leaders in Brussels, followed by a meeting of the Group of Seven nations in Sicily.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster, previewing the trip to reporters last Friday, said it has three core purposes: “First, to reaffirm America’s global leadership. Second, to continue building key relationships with world leaders. And, third, to broadcast a message of unity to America’s friends and to the faithful of three of the world’s greatest religions.”
The trip, say outside foreign policy gurus, has other benefits for Trump, as well. Unlike in the United States, it is doubtful that Trump will directly encounter protesters in Saudi Arabia, because the kingdom’s strict laws restrict public dissent; in Israel, because he enjoys a warm relationship with the government; and at the summits in Belgium and Italy, because security measures will create a wide perimeter around him most of the time.
Anything could mar the trip, however, whether a verbal gaffe, breach of protocol or even wayward body language. Extensive preparation, said foreign policy experts, may be especially valuable for a leader such as Trump, whose temperament favors the cocoon of familiarity. He also can be visibly uncomfortable when ceding the spotlight to others, or when sitting through lengthy meetings in which other speakers have the floor — hallmarks of foreign summits.
“This might be the first foreign trip where the president will tweet from abroad,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who served as Mitt Romney’s chief policy adviser during his 2012 presidential campaign. “How do we deal with that? There are certain conventions and precedents we adhere to when on foreign soil. Is this a dictum the president will maintain?”
In recent days, Trump has received a series of briefers who present information as he likes to consume it — in free-flowing conversations, in video presentations and in photographs, maps and charts, as opposed to voluminous reading materials.
The process largely is being overseen by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, as well as McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller have spent time preparing the president, while key lawmakers — including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) — have offered input as well, though not directly to Trump.
Trump is soliciting counsel from some outsiders such as Kissinger but has largely kept his circle confined to real-world practitioners and administration insiders — a reflection of the White House’s view that input from academic experts, authors and other thought leaders is less valuable because they have not achieved practical success.
Top White House officials are sensitive to the portrayal of Trump as a know-nothing novice when it comes to foreign policy, pointing out that he has traveled the globe many times as a real estate mogul with properties on several continents.
And, they say, Trump has already weathered foreign policy challenges from the confines of the White House. Indeed, most developments seen by many as early successes have been in this realm: the bombing in Syria, attempts to warm relations with China and efforts to strengthen alliances against North Korea.
Senior advisers also insist that Trump’s preparation has not been limited to the days leading up to his trip. Since his election, the president has used the hours he has spent with foreign leaders, over working lunches and one-on-one meetings — as well as his 76 phone calls with 43 global counterparts, according to the White House’s tally — as tutorials on the economic and security challenges across different regions.
The sessions, said a senior White House official, break down along distinct lines: First, what “deliverables” the president hopes to achieve from the trip and second, the strategic messaging of those goals. Trump has been working closely with Miller, known for his nationalist and anti-globalist views, to help sketch out his prepared remarks.
Trump met recently with Tillerson in the Oval Office to discuss the Saudi Arabia visit and set goals for his meetings with Arab leaders. He also sat down with Mattis, who briefed him on his recent trip to the Middle East and on security concerns in the region.
Cohn, Kushner and Powell also met with the president last week, including an hour spent discussing the G-7 portion of the trip. And last Wednesday and Thursday, McMaster, Kushner and Powell briefed Trump on the feedback they received from their own meetings with key senators.
Advisers said Trump intends to draw a deliberate contrast with former president Barack Obama, whose speeches overseas championing human rights and democracy sometimes rankled his hosts. Senior officials said the president did not plan to “lecture” or “chastise.”
One challenge for Trump will be to adapt the language he uses domestically — epitomized by the “America First” theme of his inaugural address — into more inviting and inclusive rhetoric for U.S. allies and potential allies, said Richard Burt, a top diplomat in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
“I don’t think that ‘America First’ is the kind of theme you want to take with you when you go abroad,” Burt said. “You’ve got to somehow modify it to show that ‘America First’ does not mean that our friends and allies are not important in our overall policy.”