WASHINGTON — In the long list of things that few would have anticipated last year, consider this scenario: President Donald Trump starting his first foreign trip in Saudi Arabia , where he expects a strong welcome from Muslim leaders.
Critics at least would not be surprised at the circumstances, Trump skipping town leaving a trail of bad headlines in his wake.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump accused the Saudis of blowing up the World Trade Center and vowed to make them pay their fair share of U.S. military costs to stabilize the region. Trump's campaign also promised "a shutdown of Muslims coming into the country" — which translated into two travel bans, now held up pending judicial review, applied to individuals from specific Muslim-majority countries, none of them Saudi Arabia.
Nonetheless, Trump expects to get on famously with Saudi King Salman, and make friends meeting representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council and later Arab Islamic-American leaders.
When the White House first announced the trip, which also will touch down in Israel, Italy and Belgium, Trump's decision to start his debut tour abroad in Riyadh seemed to counter expectations brilliantly by showcasing a president ready to salute "the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam." But following a week of bad press on the heels of Trump's ill-managed firing of FBI chief James Comey and reports that Trump shared too much information to a Russian delegation, the destination itself seems less important than the fact that Trump will be out of pocket.
"No president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslims faiths all on one trip," National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters in brighter days as he sought to usher Trump beyond the so-called Muslim ban and forward with "a message of tolerance."
"This is intriguing when you consider President Trump has made a variety of comments about Saudi Arabia during the campaign, all of which is at odds with being friendly with the Saudi family in a public manner," observed Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Trump will have to be careful not to behave in a manner that leaves any of the 50-plus Arab and Islamic leaders feeling offended.
At Wednesday's U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement speech, Trump told cadets that he would "challenge" Muslim leaders "to fight hatred and extremism and embrace a peaceful future." Challenge? That tone could fall flat with Islamic and Arabic leaders.
Trump faces a different challenge in Israel. As a candidate he promised to be "the most pro-Israeli president ever." He also said he would "move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem."
But as Trump has dreamed of brokering a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, he has wavered on his embassy pledge. That's not new. Past Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made the same pledge, and then failed to do so after winning election.
In the last week it's been politics-as-usual with a heavy helping of mixed messages. On Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Trump wants to understand how an embassy move "would impact a peace process."
Tuesday, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley told CBN News, "Obviously, I believe that the capital should be Jerusalem ... their government is in Jerusalem."
Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that a senior White House official disclosed that Trump had decided not to move the embassy.
Then there are news reports that the Islamic State intelligence that Trump inadvertently leaked to the Russians last week came from Israel.
Just how did the president leak information critical to the intelligence community's decision to ban laptop use on board certain flights, mostly from the Middle East? This gets to the nub of Trump's problem. Russian President Vladimir Putin figured out early that the key to Trump's good graces is flattery. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak probably had a good idea how to tease information out of Trump.
Perhaps the trip will turn out well, as a lot of smart committed people want Trump to succeed abroad. But if the trip does any good, it will be despite Trump's worst impulses.