WASHINGTON – Swinging over the green Ionian sea Saturday, his first foreign trip behind him, President Donald Trump was in a valedictory mood.
Behind him, perched on the hillside, was the former Dominican monastery where G7 leaders had just finishing haranguing him to abandon his campaign promises to withdraw from a major climate agreement. He didn’t give in.
Ahead was a crowd of US troops stationed on this rocky Italian outpost, eager to hear their commander in chief reprise the foreign agenda he’d spend the last nine days considering.
After nine days of talks with calculating foreign leaders, Trump was eager for the affirmation of an applauding audience.
“We have been gone for a long time,” Trump declared at the Sigonella Air Base here. “Everywhere I go — we have been gone close to nine days, this will be nine days — I think we hit a home run no matter where we are.”
It was an upbeat message for a leader fresh from meeting with his new club of foreign counterparts for the first time. But underneath the point-by-point recap of his trip lay uncertainty over his agenda and disputes with his foreign counterparts.
Trump’s first voyage abroad was a story told in chapters, each successively less pleasant for a President still taking stock of his standing on the world stage.
Beyond a scattering of formal remarks, none of the story was told by Trump himself, who refused to hold a news conference and, by his advisers’ own admission, revealed little of his thinking to top aides as he hopped from nation to nation.
Instead, it was a trip told in pictures with the volume on mute. By the time he departed Sicily, Trump had delivered four major addresses but clarified none of the questions that surround his foreign policy.
In some ways, uncertainty amounted to a win, at least in the minds of Trump’s aides. As Trump prepared to depart Washington last Friday, there was little surety among his staff that the nine-day odyssey could proceed without failure. Trump himself, who hadn’t slept in a bed that wasn’t his own since taking office, remained skeptical a five-country itinerary could end well.
A homebody with little appetite for discomfort, Trump was imagining the worst. Unpleasant foreign food, withering jet lag, and an unfamiliar bed had been his experiences as a businessman abroad. Even in the days leading up to his departure, Trump asked whether the trip could be truncated. He vented about the ambitious schedule to his senior advisers in the days leading up to his departure.
But by then it was too late. With meetings locked in and the world anticipating his global debut, Trump settled into his quarters on Air Force One for a flight four times longer than any he’d taken as President.
A king’s welcome
Fourteen hours later, Trump was tucked into the back of his armored limousine, speeding into central Riyadh alongside King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and watching billboards plastered with both their faces whiz past.
Any concern about an uneasy touch-down abroad disappeared quickly. Welcomed with horse parades, draped with a gold medal and lured into a male-only sword dance, Trump had finally found a country to treat him like a king, if only for a weekend.
For the first time in his presidency, he was regularly accompanied by the first lady, who consulted with the US State Department before packing her wardrobe and emerged as the unlikely subplot of Trump’s debut on the world stage.
Trump’s aides selected the Middle Eastern kingdom as the first stop, partially because the lavish lifestyle lived by its monarchy was bound to be extended to the President. Launching the President’s trip from Saudi Arabia also underscored its critical importance in the eyes of the White House, particularly for son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who hailed the business deals reached on the trip.
Yet an air of naïveté hung in the air after the President’s speech to leaders of more than 50 Muslim majority nations. The White House described it as something of a fait accompli, with a top official twice declaring that the President had “united the Muslim world.”
In truth, Trump had done nothing of the sort, even with his well-received Riyadh address. Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller — whose role writing the speech raised eyebrows — had drafted a conciliatory address that replaced Trump’s “radical Islamic terror” watchword with the milder “Islamist extremism.”
As Trump delivered his opening argument to a room packed with leaders of Muslim nations, however, the newly sedate language didn’t entirely come through.
“There is still much work to be done,” Trump said. “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamists and Islamic terror of all kinds.”
The slip-up occurred because the President was exhausted, his advisers later explained, only two days into what would become a nine-day slog through meetings and ceremonies.
Awaking in Jerusalem two days later to news of a suicide attack in England, Trump found himself confronting at close range the thematic underpinnings of his trip.
Huddling with aides in his suite at the storied King David hotel overlooking the old city, the message on extremism he’d delivered in Saudi Arabia — which came with few details — suddenly appeared more difficult. In Israel, a country intimately familiar with the scourge of terror and the entrenched politics of peace, the problem appeared even more insurmountable.
Trump was unsatisfied with the language his advisers had prepared for a speech later that morning. The condemnation of the attack lacked verve, Trump believed. Describing the attackers in ordinary terms wouldn’t suffice. Instead he wrote up his own description, using the insult he’s long considered the most cutting.
“I will call them from now on losers because that’s what’s they are. They’re losers,” Trump said a few hours later standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “We’ll have more of them. But they’re losers — just remember that.”
The message was well received. But hours later, it was clear Trump faced a steep climb before bridging the gaps that have long stymied American presidents’ attempts at fostering stability in the Middle East.
“I hope this heralds a real change,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said ahead of Trump’s remarks at the Israel Museum. “Because if the attacker had been Palestinian and the victims had been Israeli children, the suicide bomber’s family would have received a stipend from the Palestinian Authority. That’s Palestinian law. That law must be changed.”
It was an intrusion of real-world obstacles into Trump’s vision for peace, which he once deemed easy, but which this week he declared the hardest deal of all.
When the President arrived at the Vatican on a sun-splashed morning on Wednesday, Pope Francis didn’t lecture Trump. He gently encouraged him to do something else: Read.
The Pope presented Trump with a bound copy of his encyclical on protecting the environment, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.”
For all the underlying tensions setting the stage for their first visit, given their unusually harsh exchange last year over immigration and whether the building of walls is a Christian thing to do, the Pope took another tack.
A skilled politician in his own right, Francis honed in on the President’s pending decision whether to pull the US from the Paris climate accord. It was the first of several conversations Trump conducted this week on the landmark carbon reduction agreement, which he vowed as a candidate to scrap.
Departing the G7, Trump said he would make a decision next week. But to leaders he met with in Sicily, his intentions already seemed clear. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the group held unsatisfactory conversations on the matter. The US refrained from signing onto a joint statement endorsing Paris after the summit closed; other leaders said Trump wasn’t prepared to take that step.
At the Vatican, though, Trump insisted his mind was open.
“I’ll be reading them,” Trump said of the essays from the Pope on the environment and creating peace.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, weighed in with the direct message urging Trump and his team to stay true to the Paris agreement.
The President’s first meeting with Francis was steeped in symbolism, the final stop in visiting the three homes of the Abrahamic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
He’s the second American president to visit the Vatican under Francis’ papacy. While President Barack Obama’s meeting was 20 minutes longer than Trump’s, the Holy See wasted little time comparing the two.
As he left the Apostolic Palace, Trump told the Pope: “I won’t forget what you said.”
If he meant climate change, the Pope will have won round one.
Flying north from Rome, Trump found the temperature quickly cooling. He arrived at NATO’s headquarters on the outskirts of Rome under a cloud of suspicion on multiple fronts.
After sensitive British intelligence about the Manchester attack appeared in American media outlets, Prime Minister Theresa May fumed, saying she planned to speak her mind when she met Trump at the meetings. It was the second time a foreign government expressed concern about sharing intelligence with their US counterparts: Trump himself revealed secret information to Russian officials earlier this month that could be traced back to Israel.
In one of the only off-script moments of his trip, Trump declared in Jerusalem that he hadn’t mentioned Israel by name with his Russian visitors. But at NATO, the concerns still boiled.
It was just one of the rifts between Trump and his European counterparts. After open-arm welcomes in Riyadh and Jerusalem, Trump’s foreign swing took a distinct tonal shift. Instead of banquets and horses, Trump was suddenly flung into tension-filled meetings with leaders deeply skeptical of his foreign agenda.
His first talks with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron began with a lengthy handshake, each man’s face contorted in a forced smile as they gripped each other. Later, a French official revealed Trump asked for Macron’s cell phone number, and tried to insist he didn’t back Macron’s election rival Marine Le Pen, who he referred to only as “that woman.”
Subsequent sessions proceeded similarly. Trump reportedly griped about the hurdles in opening golf courses in Europe with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. European Council President Donald Tusk said after his meeting with Trump that they weren’t able to bridge differences over Russia.
At NATO, the mood hadn’t improved. Despite the military bands and a military jet flyover, Trump wasn’t in a conciliatory mood. While he vowed in Riyadh the US would no longer lecture its allies — particularly on human rights — it was a lecture he delivered during an unveiling ceremony at the military alliance’s new building.
“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Trump said as his fellow NATO leaders openly scoffed. “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and not paying in those past years.”
Trump’s message didn’t contain an explicit endorsement of NATO’s collective defense pact — an attack on one is an attack on all — though his aides later insisted the message was implied.
As he mingled at his first major summit of world leaders, it was evident the new member of the exclusive society wasn’t out to make friends. He remained largely isolated during informal talks, speaking intently with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as other leaders huddled around Merkel, the most powerful leader in Europe. When it came time for a photo-op, Trump pushed his way past Montenegro’s prime minister to the front.
It was a far cry from the display of welcome he’d experienced in Saudi Arabia only five days earlier. And it wasn’t due to improve as he flew to his final stop in Sicily.
Russia questions swirl
The week-long swing through the Middle East and Europe provided momentary relief for a beleaguered Trump, whose presidency reached its most precarious moments in the scandal-pocked week before he departed.
Aides had hoped he could escape the Russia controversy briefly while traveling overseas. But by the time Trump arrived at his final stop in Sicily, the probe into Russia’s election-year meddling had only inched closer to Trump’s inner circle.
As he returns, decisions about hiring lawyers and firing aides loom.
Spending his first nights as president away from home, Trump found himself stewing over the latest developments from foreign hotel rooms late into the night. Even with wife, Melania, alongside for the longest stretch of his presidency, Trump was consumed by the story that has deeply sidetracked his agenda.
On the rocky hillside where leaders were meeting, the questions about Russia and the controversies back home seemed to merge. Leaders wondered whether Trump — whose campaign was aided by Russian election meddling, according to a US intelligence analysis — could ever be trusted to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russia controversy also prevented Trump from fully embracing what would ordinarily be a crowning moment of his presidency. Unwilling to face questions about the controversy, Trump eschewed any kind of interactions with the press, a setting he otherwise could use to tout his accomplishments abroad.
Most other leaders took questions as they departed Taormina, many detailing points of contention with the new US leader. Trump himself offered no view of his side of the encounters nor could he articulate his foreign policy while answering questions about them.
Returning to Washington, Trump remained in his cocoon — pleased with himself, but aware the silence won’t last much longer.