WASHINGTON (Reuters) - 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.
“This trip combines so many different things and actors that the question is going to be what’s the message that he wants to communicate when he’s out there,” said Lanhee Chen, who advised Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 and Marco Rubio’s in 2016.
Some doubt whether Trump, a businessman-turned politician who never held elective office before becoming president in January, is ready for a smooth presidential debut abroad.
One Republican official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said after meeting Trump recently he did not think the president had a firm enough grasp on the nuances of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I don’t think he understands it,” said the official, adding that Trump needed more detailed briefings before leaving on Friday. “I think it’s a very difficult challenge and I hope he’s going to talk to a lot of smart people.”
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.
Conversations with some officials who have briefed Trump and others who are aware of how he absorbs information portray a president with a short attention span.
He likes single-page memos and visual aids like maps, charts, graphs and photos.
National Security Council officials have strategically included Trump’s name in “as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,” according to one source, who relayed conversations he had with NSC officials.
Trump likes to look at a map of the country involved when he learns about a topic.
“He likes to visualise things,” said a senior administration official. “The guy’s a builder. He has spent his whole life looking at architectural renderings and floor plans.”
Although Trump has a string of golf resorts around the world that he has visited, the trip could take him out of his comfort zone. He generally prefers his own bed to hotel rooms. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he often flew home after a day of campaigning rather than staying in hotels overnight.
Presidential rhetoric and gaffes abroad have caused problems for some of Trump’s predecessors.
Bush drew fire after his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Slovenia in June 2001, when he said he had looked the former KGB chief in the eye and “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The comment was seen as naive.
Even body language is watched carefully. Democratic President Barack Obama was criticized for bowing to Japanese Emperor Akihito in a visit to Japan in November 2009.
One Gulf Arab official said Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, the first stop on his trip would send a message that America did not see Islam as an enemy.
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.
But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if Trump, who is prone to speaking off-the-cuff, ended up undercutting his own message, it could be damaging.
“It can backfire, I mean it can seriously backfire,” the official said.
Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to Bush, said that since the trip would be Trump’s first overseas, the stakes were higher.
“The meaning and importance of his first trip abroad will be exaggerated, but it gives him a chance to get bipartisan accolades, or a chance to fail badly and have the failure exaggerated,” Fleischer said.
Additional reporting by John Walcott and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney