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Trump takes off for nine-day trip, hoping to leave his baggage behind

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, wave as they board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Friday, May 19, 2017, prior to his departure on his first overseas trip. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

When Air Force One departed from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland Friday, it took off under a growing cloud of domestic turmoil that Donald Trump is hoping to leave behind on his first trip abroad as president.

Trump, joined by most of his senior aides, will spend the next nine days traversing the Middle East and Europe, meeting with foreign leaders, and desperately trying to avoid further complications surrounding his firing of FBI Director James Comey and the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Foreign policy experts say the president has a lot to accomplish during this trip and a lot to prove to a skeptical world after an aggressively nationalist campaign that many saw as xenophobic and an uncommonly rocky first four months in office.

“I think as a general point he needs to counteract the image that he’s got adult-onset attention deficit disorder and come across as a statesman,” said Michael Desch, director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame and a former State Department intelligence analyst.

Carey Cavanaugh, a former ambassador and a professor at the University of Kentucky's Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, said Trump must assuage concerns “that the administration has been overwhelmed by domestic problems and the foreign policy team hasn’t been fleshed out enough to handle the challenges.”

Cavanaugh, who just returned from traveling in Europe, said policymakers there are very cognizant of the many vacancies at the State Department and Defense Department. With Trump embroiled in controversy, there are doubts that the administration can be effective in foreign policy.

“This trip will be a real test of if they’re up to the challenge of advancing American policy with the turmoil at home,” he said.

According to Allen Keiswetter, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who worked at the State Department for 36 years, Trump has set lofty goals: refurbishing U.S. leadership, repairing frayed alliances, and emphasizing the common goals of the Abrahamic religions.

“The main thing he needs to accomplish is not screw up, but I’m afraid screwing up this trip would be a very serious blow, given the American domestic context in which it’s occurring,” he said.

With the president facing criticism for a lack of progress on his campaign promises, frequent missteps, and a steady stream of mixed messages, botching this trip will reinforce a damaging narrative.

“If he screws up, then it just compounds everything and this becomes another chapter in his incompetency,” Keiswetter said.

Ed Rogers, a political consultant who worked in the White House under two Republican presidents, said the trip could give Trump a reprieve from the onslaught of bad news at home and enable him to regain control of his message.

“Opportunities for chaos-inducing leaks will be reduced, and the White House should be able to implement a classic communications plan of having the president’s picture in the news match the narrative of his day-to-day itinerary,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

Democrats are skeptical that the president can eke out political gains from a trip that strategist Matt McDermott described as “ill-planned and ill-conceived.”

“Frankly, the American people should be disappointed and embarrassed by the man representing us on the world stage,” McDermott said, warning that Trump will “negate the advances President Obama made with a single trip.”

The Trump tour begins in Saudi Arabia before moving on to Israel and the Vatican, very consciously hitting locations associated with Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. He will then attend summits in Brussels and Sicily.

The president will be greeted in Riyadh on Saturday morning with a welcome ceremony and a royal banquet. The prestigious treatment could help overcome his reported uncertainty about spending so much time away from the White House.

“Often when presidents have trouble at home, there’s a lot of help in going abroad,” Cavanaugh said.

Saudi officials are eager to forge a tighter allegiance with Trump following their rocky relationship with President Obama. This is despite Trump portraying them as freeloaders and calling for radical restrictions on Muslims during his campaign.

“The Saudis, starting in December 2015, took a rather skeptical view I think they have now moved to a place where they are, I would use the word ‘giddy,’ with delight,” Keiswetter said.

As a result, the first leg of the journey should help Trump ease into international travel. Greater challenges await at his later destinations.

“On the Israel side, it’s pretty easy to step on a landmine figuratively under the best of circumstances,” Desch said.

Trump publicly sparred with Pope Francis over his border wall plan during the campaign and the pope has taken a much more open stance toward refugees than the president has, adding potential for tension and conflict to the Vatican visit.

The president’s European summits may prove no less turbulent.

“The domestic issues won’t be a problem when he’s in Saudi Arabia, but when he’s in Europe, there will be more opportunity for people to gather in the streets to taunt him on his domestic challenges and protest his views on international issues, especially climate change,” said James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University.

Desch noted that Trump’s inconsistent stance on the obsoleteness of NATO and his criticism of the European Union will complicate his meetings with leaders there. Given the apparent chaos in his administration on a policy level, they may be unsure if they can trust his word.

“Will Trump say something surprising or seemingly at variance with what they thought was settled U.S. policy?... If the president says X while he’s there, will X still hold three months or six months down the road?” he said.

According to media reports, Trump’s staff and his host countries are all preparing to accommodate his unique tastes and proclivities. Caterers will ensure steak and ketchup are on hand and leaders will be looking for opportunities to compliment his Electoral College success.

Aides will also be hoping the president does not go off script, lose interest, or tweet away his frustrations as he so often has during his U.S. travels.

“At NATO and the Group of 7 summits, foreign delegations have gotten word that the new U.S. president prefers short presentations and lots of visual aids,” the Associated Press reported Friday. “And at all of Trump’s five stops on his first overseas trip, his team has spent weeks trying to build daily downtime into his otherwise jam-packed schedule.”

Trump’s presidency to date has been marked by numerous public comments and early morning tweets that his staff is unprepared for and that undermine the official narrative coming from the White House. Preventing such eruptions will be essential to a successful trip.

“The issue that will be most pressing is that the president himself can make or break this,” Desch said.

Heads of state will be more interested in discussing issues that affect them directly than the Washington intrigue the administration is mired in back home. Trump will almost certainly face questions from the press about the Russia investigation, though, and he is always one spontaneous tweet away from torpedoing everything the administration is planning to talk about on a given day.

Even if the president exhibits discipline far beyond what he has so far demonstrated a capacity for, Washington will not be putting domestic politics on hold until he returns.

Congressional committees have scheduled hearings for next week on the Russia probe, including one where Comey himself might testify. It is unclear how the appointment of a special counsel to handle the case by the Justice Department will impact lawmakers’ plans to question witnesses in public.

“The White House will have to react to news stemming from those hearings from a few time zones away,” McDermott said. “That's hard enough as it is from any administration, let alone one as incoherent and mismanaged as the Trump administration.”

The White House will also unveil its 2018 budget next week, and it promises to include controversial cuts to popular programs and significant changes that are already meeting stiff resistance in Congress.

For an administration that struggles to stay on message under the best of circumstances, that is quite a lot of plates to keep spinning. That does not even include the seemingly daily bombshells dropping in the media from anonymous leaks.

As if to illustrate the challenge, soon after Trump’s plane lifted off Friday, the New York Times revealed that he had called Comey a “nut job” during his meeting with Russian officials last week and said firing him removed “great pressure” he was feeling.

That could all become background noise if Trump keeps the focus on foreign policy and international affairs. History has shown nine days is a long time for this president to go without making news unexpectedly, so that may still be a lot to ask.

“If he goes over and comes across as statesmanlike and proposes new things that seem reasonable, he’ll have a lot more leverage to change the story back here than he might otherwise have,” Desch said.

However, the boost a president gets from a successful trip abroad tends to be short-lived, so the risks could outweigh the rewards.

“He could hurt himself more if the trip goes badly, but I don’t think he can help himself over the longer term if it goes well,” Desch said.

“The troubles at home are going to be here when he gets back.”

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