It would be an audacious first foreign trip under the best of circumstances. These are not the best of circumstances.
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President Trump heads to the Middle East and Europe with impossibly high expectations set from inside his own White House. He’s hoping to reset America’s relationship with friend and foe alike, setting the stage for Middle East peace, an end to Islamic terrorism, and worldwide acceptance of a brash new type of American leadership stance.
Trump travels with baggage as heavy as any president has brought with him on an initial journey off of US soil. That stems from incendiary campaign rhetoric –- particularly words directed toward Muslims -– and a widening series of overlapping scandals that have stoked staff turmoil and spooked Republicans in Congress.
Those scandals will develop in Capitol Hill hearing rooms and American newspapers next week, even while the president is multiple time zones away. Combine that with the possibility of gaffes and missteps by a still-green team, and the particular ability of Middle Eastern countries to draw offense at any perceived slight, and the president won’t even need Twitter to get himself in possible trouble.
The president’s nine-day, five-country trip will take him to the seat of three major religions as well as the heart of Europe, for his first major summits. He will confront fallout from the chaotic atmosphere he’s created back home at virtually every stop.
At his first stop, in Saudi Arabia, Trump will be face-to-face with leaders of 54 Islamic countries, and is expected to deliver a call to Islamic terrorism. The appearances will invite reminders of his campaign vow of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” plus the travel ban on those coming from majority-Muslim countries that he’s still fighting for in court.
Trump’s now-former national security adviser –- Michael Flynn, the man at the center of the Russia investigation -– famously called Islam a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people.” And Flynn’s work on behalf of the Turkish government has also drawn renewed scrutiny; that could set up some awkward meetings with the Turks and their neighbors.
Before he even gets to the Holy Land, the Israelis are smarting from a perceived slight over whether the Western Wall is part of Israel proper, and the news that Trump won’t be relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem any time soon. Plus, the intelligence information Trump is accused to giving to the Russians happened to come from Israel, according to numerous reports and as confirmed by ABC News.
Toward the end of the trip, Trump makes his first trip to a NATO summit. On the campaign trail, he famously called NATO “obsolete,” but last month he declared that he no longer believes that to be the case.
Yet for all those potential distractions, it’s as if administration officials envision the trip playing out in an alternate universe, free of domestic distractions and liberated even from the words the president uttered as a candidate.
“There is a great sense of expectation, and I think a great welcomeness of America returning to the scene,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday. “The people in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what’s happening domestically here.”
A senior administration official told ABC News this week that the president and his team see the trip as a chance to “start a new chapter in the history of the region.” That chapter would be aimed at ending conflicts – less war, less terrorism - in a particularly Trumpian way.
“What we want to try to accomplish is to create a black and a white,” the official said, “to get people over time to say are you on the good team or are you on the bad team. You’re either part of the solution over there or you’re part of the problem” when it comes to radical violent extremism.
It appears likely that Trump will be greeted warmly at most of his stops. His interactions with the press will be severely limited, in part out of the hope that his broad messaging will break through.
But while the bar may be set low for Trump’s first trip, the scrutiny will be as high as ever. The president is well beyond any hope of escaping politics and the swirl of scandal enveloping him back home.
ABC News' Shushannah Walshe, Katherine Faulders, and Devin Dwyer contributed to this report.