Trump takes a more cautious approach on big trip
Brussels — In his first big tour on the world stage, President Donald Trump is choosing caution over his usual brand of chaos.
The early morning Twitter rants that so often rattle Washington have disappeared as Trump travels through the Middle East and Europe. The president has traded his free-wheeling speaking style for tightly scripted remarks. And with most of the traveling press corps being kept at a distance, the opportunities for him to be pressed on the controversies engulfing his administration back home are dramatically lessened.
Trump did briefly respond to one shouted question about his meeting with Pope Francis on Wednesday, offering this indisputable assessment of the pontiff: “He is something.”
The president appears likely to go his entire nine-day trip without holding a full news conference, a break from presidential foreign travel precedent. That’s allowed him to steer clear of the steady stream of new revelations about his dealings with ousted FBI Director James Comey and the federal investigations into his election campaign’s possible ties to Russia. And it’s left no real opportunities to push the president beyond his talking points on some of the trip’s most complex issues, including the prospect of restarting Middle East peace talks and strengthening regional alliances to combat terrorism.
The White House has been jubilant over the trip’s results so far, and content to let the images of Trump meeting with world leaders tell the story instead of the president’s own unpredictable words. The White House did not respond to questions Wednesday about whether he might squeeze in a news conference on the final legs of the trip, his meetings with NATO and European leaders in Brussels and the Group of 7 summit in Sicily.
Jen Psaki, who served as White House communications director for President Barack Obama, said every White House has to contend with the risks of letting events at home step on a trip’s message. But she said there’s also value in an American president engaging with the press on foreign soil.
“We always saw press conferences as part of our objective: to send the message in countries without a free press, or with limitations on freedom of speech that the United States valued these sometimes-unpredictable interactions as a part of democracy,” Psaki said.
Not that Trump has gone silent on his five-stop trip abroad. He called on Arab and Muslim leaders to step up in the fight against terrorism during an address in Saudi Arabia, and he called on Israelis and Palestinians to get back to the negotiating table during remarks Tuesday in Jerusalem. In both instances, he hewed closely to his prepared text — a rarity given his normal pattern of veering not only off script but sometimes wildly off topic.
There have been some self-inflicted wounds, most notably Trump’s decision to field a journalist’s question to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about concerns over the president’s decision to share with Russia some classified intelligence that had been obtained by Israel. The president declared that he “never mentioned the word or the name Israel” in his discussions with the Russian officials.
In one short set of off-the-cuff remarks in Jerusalem, Trump told an Israeli delegation that he had just gotten back from the Middle East — despite the fact that Israel is squarely in the region. Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., can be seen in the video visibly reacting to the flub.
But some leaders Trump was slated to meet with on his trip had been preparing for far worse than the occasional Trump gaffe. At NATO headquarters, where he will visit Thursday, aides have prepped Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for the possibility that the president could try to pull off a stunt such as passing around invoices to member countries who have not met the alliance’s financial guidelines, according to a person with knowledge of the planning.
Trump has been a sharp critic of NATO countries that don’t spend the agreed-upon 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the president indeed planned to push allies hard on that issue. The person with knowledge of the NATO planning insisted on anonymity in order to disclose private discussions.
Trump advisers vigorously contest the idea that the president’s more measured tenor abroad is the result of significant staff intervention, arguing that the president himself is behind the approach for his first foreign trip.
The final leg may be the most challenging. After warm embraces from the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump will be meeting with European leaders who are still skeptical of his untraditional approach to politics and his hard-to-pin-down policy positions. The arrangements for the summits will also put Trump’s patience to the test, requiring him to spend hours locked in rooms listening to his foreign counterparts.