President Trump departs later this week on his first trip abroad since taking office. It is a trip with five stops including Riyadh, Jerusalem, Rome, Brussels and Sicily. The stops in Europe involve meetings with Pope Francis at the Vatican, with our NATO partners in Brussels and with the leaders of the G7 countries in Sicily. This afternoon the White House invited journalists to join a conference call with a Senior Administration Official (hereinafter SAO) speaking on background. He briefly previewed the trip and took questions. I just got off the call.
SAO described the trip as ambitious and historic. He said the president would be visiting the homelands of of three major faiths and that the president saw this as an opportunity to speak to Americans who follow the respective faiths (my notes are skimpy here).
In Riyadh President Trump will give a speech to leaders of Muslim countries. He will address the need to confront extremism and end the double game by which they may badmouth for public consumption while continuing to fund it on the sly. This is intended to be a major speech.
In Israel President Trump will reaffirm our close relationship with Israel. SAO indicated that the warmth ofPresident Trump’s words in Jerusalem would contrast with those of the previous administration. In response to a question posed by the reporter from AFP, SAO commented that the speech in Israel would not be a “peace process” speech because President Trump is not a “peace process” president. SAO emphasized that President Trump is well aware of the long history of failure involved in the “peace process.” He views himself as a possible facilitator of an agreement.
In his speech President Trump will acknowledge Israel’s uniqueness and salute its contributions to the world, both alone and together with the United States. According to SAO, President Trump is taking “a different approach.” He will get together with Mahmoud Abbas as part of his effort to build a relationship with him.
I asked a question about (1) General McMaster’s recent refusal to concede that Jerusalem is in Israel and (2) President Trump’s unwillingness to let Prime Minister Netanyahu accompany him when he visits the Western Wall (as he will be the first president to do while in office). SAO noted that the remarks of an administration official along the lines of (1) “don’t reflect the views of this president and this administration.” SAO stated with respect to (2) that the president is to be accompanied by the Rabbi of the Western Wall consistent with past practice. The arrangements are to emphasize the spiritual nature of the visit.
SAO referred to Prime Minister’s Netanyahu’s early visit to the White House and the personal warmth between the two leaders. By the same token, the president’s visit to Jerusalem and its inclusion on the itinerary of his first trip abroad are intended to revitalize the partnership between the Untied States and Israel.
Asked about President Trump’s possible blowing of an Israeli intelligence source in his Oval Office meeting with the Russians, SAO said he could not comment. He cited the statement of Israel’s Ambassador Ron Dermer testifying to the continued strength of our intelligence relationship with Israel. President Trump himself distinguishes what he says to foreign leaders in public with what he says in private, SAO explained in response to a question regarding the visit to Saudi Arabia, and I am afraid that the same consideration obviously applies to Ambassador Dermer’s statement.
With Pope Francis President Trump will pay his respects and review issues of common concern. He would like to work more closely on such issues with Pope Francis. Asked when President Trump would name his ambassador to the Holy See, SAO stated that he was learning the complications involved in ambassadorial appointments. He believed that the appointment was imminent.
SAO concluded his preview with remarks on the NATO meeting in Brussels (the president will emphasize burden sharing) and the G7 meeting in Sicily (the president will reaffirm our relationship with our largest democratic allies and meet President Macron face to face for the first time). He will pursue his economic agenda seeking better deals for the United States.
At CNN, the experienced foreign policy expert Aaron David Miller provides his own preview of the president’s trip. Interested readers may want to compare it with this one. At the Washington Post, Josh Rogin adds that Trump intends to unveil plans for an “Arab NATO” in Saudi Arabia to push back against Iran. Iran wasn’t mentioned by SAO on the conference call.