By: Steve Holland and Jeff Mason
Besieged by controversy at home, U.S. President Donald Trump is under pressure to stick to the script and avoid fresh flare-ups when he embarks this week on his first foreign trip, a nine-day trek to the Middle East and Europe.
White House officials and Republicans close to the administration say Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” slogan, wants to demonstrate leadership abroad on his visit with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Israel and the West Bank, the pope at the Vatican, NATO leaders in Brussels and G7 counterparts in Sicily.
Trump faces fierce criticism over his sharing of sensitive national security information with Russian officials and his firing last week of FBI Director James Comey. Allegations that he previously asked Comey to end an investigation into his former national security adviser drew a new round of attacks on Tuesday.
A Republican strategist close to the White House said Trump needed a strong trip to help put the past tumultuous 10 days behind him.
“If the White House is looking for this international trip to turn the page, then it really needs to come off well without any balls dropped or serious mistakes,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity.
“This is their time to shine, to show Americans and the world that the White House isn’t becoming a circus of errors.”
Airing his frustrations on Twitter, Trump has lashed out at leaks to the news media from officials inside his administration. Confidants say a staff shake-up is possible, although major changes are unlikely before Trump’s foreign trip.
His political woes will add to Trump’s challenges as he tries to bolster ties abroad.
White House advisers insisted Trump was up to speed on the Middle East, having already hosted Arab, Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the White House.
“His way of doing diplomacy, which really contrasts with President Obama’s approach, is to … prioritise the personal relationship,” said Michael Singh, a foreign policy adviser to former Republican President George W. Bush.
To prepare for his trip, Trump has been meeting with briefers including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The trip could be a chance for the president to counter critics who accuse him of being anti-Muslim because of the order he issued, now blocked by U.S. courts, temporarily banning entry into the United States by citizens of several Muslim-majority countries.