Trump takes off for Saudi Arabia on first foreign trip as president
MANDEL NGAN (AFP)
Donald Trump jetted off on his first foreign trip as US president Friday, departing from Joint Base Andrews in the Washington suburbs en route to Riyadh.
Trump and his wife Melania left aboard Air Force One on what will be an ambitious six-stop trip that takes in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.
Earlier on Friday, Trump tweeted that on his maiden voyage as president he "will be strongly protecting American interests - that's what I like to do!"
Trump left a swirl of domestic woes behind as he embarked on an extraordinarily dense first trip -- six stops in eight days, and countless face-to-face meetings from Saudi King Salman to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Pope Francis -- and took his first perilous steps onto the world stage.
Getting ready for my big foreign trip. Will be strongly protecting American interests - that's what I like to do!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2017
The avalanche of revelations in the run-up to his departure have eroded Trump's standing at home -- where the parallels with Richard Nixon's ill-fated presidency are now being openly drawn.
Trump's every word, action and tweet will be under the microscope.
The White House touts a "historic" trip during which Trump -- in visits to Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and Jerusalem -- will reach out to leaders of the world's major monotheistic faiths.
Known to dislike long trips, the president was joined by his wife Melania, who has until now cut a highly discreet figure at his side.
His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner -- two of his closest advisors -- were also on board Air Force One.
Trump's first stop will be Saudi Arabia, where he will likely seek to strike a contrast with the Democrat Obama, who was widely viewed with suspicion by the Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Gulf.
The combination of tough talk on Shiite Iran, a lower-key focus on human rights, and the likely announcement of new arms deals should in theory earn the US leader a warm welcome.
Trump's delivery of a speech on Islam before dozens of Muslim leaders gathered in the Saudi capital could prove a far more delicate exercise, however, given the tensions sparked by his travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority nations -- now stuck in the US courts.
"I'll speak with Muslim leaders and challenge them to fight hatred and extremism, and embrace a peaceful future for their faith," Trump promised ahead of the trip.
The Trump administration is also expected to announce $110 billion in advanced arms and training to Saudi Arabia during his visit to Riyadh on Saturday, US officials familiar with the deal told the Associated Press.
Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, has long been a major ally of the US, but the relationship soured over Obama's initial reluctance getting involved in Syria and other regional problems, as well as the signing of a landmark nuclear accord and lifting of international sanctions against their regional rival, Shiite Iran.
In Israel, Trump has hopes -- though it is still unclear how -- of reviving the moribund peace process, meeting both his "friend" Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
The president is scheduled to meet privately with the leaders in Jerusalem and Bethlehem respectively, with Trump's National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster saying during a press briefing last week that the president will publicly endorse the Palestinian people's right to "self-determination."
Since Trump's inauguration in January, his Middle East peace policy has been in flux. While Trump has articulated support for peace between the two sides, he has yet to explicitly endorse the creation of a fledgling Palestinian state, or join the international consensus supporting a two-state solution.
Meanwhile, the Israeli leg of Trump's trip is already awash in controversy -- from a row over his visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest prayer site for Jews, to Trump's alleged disclosure of Israeli intelligence to Russian officials.
The bombshell revelation that Israel was apparently the source of the highly classified information that Donald Trump was accused of divulging in a meeting with Russian officials nearly threatened to compromise the allies' security ties.
And the White House's approach to the ultra-sensitive status of the city came under intense scrutiny after a senior US official reportedly snapped that the Western Wall is "not your territory" and is "part of the West Bank" while discussing details of the president's visit with Israeli counterparts.
No sitting US president has ever visited the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, since American policy maintains that the final status of Jerusalem has yet to be determined.
The White House avoided commenting on the issue of sovereignty over the east Jerusalem holy site, calling it a complex "policy decision."
Debate has also intensified over whether the Trump will make good on his controversial promise to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though it appears the US President, who has walked back several times on claims that he supported the move, will hold off on making a decision.
Trump's meeting with Pope Francis -- two men at odds on everything from climate change to refugee policy -- remains highly unpredictable, although the pontiff says he will give America's bullish leader an open-minded hearing.
Finally, the president's trip will wrap up in Europe where his shifting pronouncements on Brexit, NATO and the future of the European Union have sown confusion among longstanding allies.
Trump will meet members of the North Atlantic alliance in Brussels, before heading on to a G7 summit in Taormina, a picturesque Sicilian town overlooking the Mediterranean.
Trump has yet to personally reassert the US commitment to Article 5, NATO's mutual defense clause.
How his trip is perceived by fellow Americans is key for the president.
Well aware of heightened concerns about terrorism, the Republican hopes to bring back hard commitments from US allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
But however powerful the images of Trump's globe-trotting turn out to be, they have little chance of eclipsing the scandals convulsing his White House back home.
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