Trump Makes First Presidential Foreign Trip, As National Woes Continue

“Russia” is the catch word of the Trump administration. The question of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is ever on-going, with new information continuously emerging. For example, Trump fired FBI director James Comey two weeks ago; the list of reasons for this dismissal has not been solidified (but appears connected to the election investigation), and the Michael Flynn scandal from a couple months ago.

Leaked intelligence is also a common theme in the White House these days; Trump allegedly shared highly classified information with Russia diplomats one day after dismissing Comey. (It is a laughable reality that Trump shares his secrets—with Putin’s people, no less—like a little girl at a sleepover.)

In the midst of these serious issues back home, Trump is making his first presidential foreign trip. Convenient? Maybe, but there can be no escaping suspicions of collusion and obstruction of justice, among other claims.

His itinerary began in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, May 20, where he stayed two days. Next, he traveled to Israel to meet with both Israel’s Prime Minister and Palestine’s President. He will then visit Europe, meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican in Rome, attending talks in Brussels, and finishing in Sicily at the G7 summit.

A nine-day, five-country presidential trip including meetings in the Middle East can be nothing short of interesting, but relationships with countries in the region are taking unexpected turns.

Trump in Saudi

Trump started off his trip in Saudi Arabia. He flew into the King Khalid airport in Riyadh on Saturday, May 20, where he received red carpet treatment.

On day one, he met with Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, and they signed a trade deal of $350bn USD. It will apparently lead to the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs in both countries.

The agreement includes the largest weapons deal in American history at almost $110bn. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the “package of defence equipment and services supports the long-term security of Saudi Arabia and the entire Gulf region,” and that the goal is to counter “malign Iranian influence and Iranian-related threats which exist on Saudi Arabia’s borders on all sides.”

The arms deal involved weapons—missile defence systems—which President Obama was unwilling to sell Saudi during his time in office. This deal seems telling of the efforts to return to the US’s pre-Obama relationship with Saudi.

Trump was awarded the King Abdulaziz Al Saud medal, the highest civilian honour, for his efforts to strengthen ties between the two nations.

Day two in Saudi was a highly anticipated—or dreaded, as the case may be—address to dozens of leaders from the Muslim world, which was compared to the scale of Obama’s speech in Cairo in 2009.

Interestingly, Trump’s speech was written by senior advisor Stephen Miller, who also wrote the controversial travel ban targeting six Muslim-majority countries.

King Salman opened the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh on Sunday with comments regarding “some presumed Muslims” who have been falsely associating a peaceful religion with violence and terrorism.

In his speech, Trump also acknowledged the distinction between Islam and terrorism. He said, “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion…This is a battle between good and evil.”

He also called on those assembled to work with the US to “drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists… Drive them out of your places of worship. Drive them out of your communities. Drive them out of your holy land and drive them out of this Earth.”

In the past, Trump has expressed extremely anti-Muslim rhetoric, especially along the campaign trail. He had called for a database of Muslims in the US, a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, and tried twice to impose a travel ban against several Muslim-majority countries. Legislation from the second attempt is still tied up in courts.

Despite his less-than-pristine track record, and belief stated in an interview last year that “Islam hates us”, Trump’s speech was surprisingly and uncharacteristically innocuous. He even avoided the controversial phrase “radical Islamic terrorism”, which Muslims widely find offensive.

The US and six Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain—are expected to sign a deal coordinating efforts to cut off funds to extremist groups.

Trump in Israel

Day three took Trump to Israel, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. The goal was to revive the peace process; he has previously called peace between Palestinians and Israelis the “ultimate deal”, but hasn’t offered a solution. It is uncertain how he may manage to achieve this when his predecessors were not able to. During the meeting, he astutely observed, “It’s not easy. I have heard it is one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we are going to get there eventually. I hope.”

Instead, he chose to focus on Iran’s nuclear capability, promising that “Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon – never ever – and must cease its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias.” The US, along with other powers, had negotiated a deal in 2015 allowing economic benefits in return for cutting back its nuclear program.

Trump again called for a joint effort in defeating ISIS, and again criticized Iran. “In my visit to Saudi Arabia, I met with many leaders of the Arab and Muslim world… These leaders voiced concerns we all share about ISIS, about Iran’s rising ambitions and rolling back its gains and about the menace of extremism that has spread through too many parts of the Muslim world.” Regarding the summit, Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani said – rather ominously – “Who can say regional stability can be restored without Iran?”

Trump will remain in the country for one more day, meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

Trump in Europe

On day five, Trump will be meeting with Pope Francis in Rome. This will be an interesting meeting, considering the two men disagree on pretty much everything. Last year, the Pope said that Trump’s obsession with building walls meant he “is not Christian.” However, Pope Francis has promised to be receptive in their meeting: “I will tell him what I think. He will tell me what he thinks. But I never want to judge someone before I listen to the person first.”

Next, Trump is off to Brussels to attend a NATO summit and meet with EU leaders. During the campaign, Trump called NATO “obsolete”, although he has since re-evaluated his position, saying in April that “It’s no longer obsolete.”

The big question regards his stance on Russia. Trump is the only American president who has not approved Article 5, which states that an attack on one member nation constitutes war with everyone in the alliance. At this point, we don’t know what position Trump holds, or whether he will be re-evaluating this as well.

He will finish up the foreign trip in Sicily, where he will be attending the G7 summit. This will also be his first time meeting France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron.

James Comey, and other Russia related problems

President Trump may not be home for the interim, but he is certainly in trouble.

On May 9, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, due to, apparently, the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Notably, Comey was also leading the investigation into allegations of Russia collusion in the 2016 election.

On May 16, the New York Times reported on an Oval Office meeting from back in February, in which Trump asked Comey to let up on the investigation into Michael Flynn. He reportedly said, “[Flynn] is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Flynn is the former national security advisor. He had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about a previous phone call with Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, regarding sanctions, which he was not at liberty to discuss. When this inconsistency in versions of the story came out, Flynn resigned.

The Trump-Comey meeting took place one day later. After the conversation, Comey wrote a detailed memo regarding the discussion, which was part of a larger paper trail he had created documenting Trump’s apparent efforts to influence the Russia investigation; this conversation is the most telling of such efforts. At the time, Comey only shared the notes with other senior officials, so they would not affect the investigation.

An FBI agent’s notes hold up in court as evidence of conversations.

On May 19, the New York Times dropped another bombshell. Trump hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office on May 10, one day after firing Comey; the comments from this meeting came out in a document summarizing the official minutes. Trump allegedly told the officials, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” This adds yet another excuse to the growing list of reasons for firing the FBI Director.

Trump also said firing Comey relieved a “great pressure” he felt over the entire Russian investigation, which sounds suspiciously like obstruction of justice.

Spokesperson Sean Spicer did not deny the words, only the interpretation; he says that Trump was referring to political pressure, rather than judicial pressure.

Even more controversially: the Washington Post followed up with more dirt from the same meeting. Allegedly, Trump shared highly classified “code-word” intelligence related to ISIS with the Russian diplomats. This intel had been provided to the US by a partner through a very sensitive intelligence agreement, and the US did not have the authority to pass this information along. In fact, this information was even classified within the levels of government, yet Trump shared it with Russia, almost bragging that “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.”

Trump apparently shared information about an ISIS plot regarding laptop usage on airplanes, as well as the targeted location. The Post is withholding most of the plot details.

US officials say Israel is the source of this intelligence. Trump says, “I never mentioned the word or the name Israel in that conversation.” However, the issue at hand regards divulging the information itself, not its source.

According to a former senior US official, “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.”

Trump cannot rid himself of Russia; scandals have dogged every step of his presidency. In a joint news conference with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos at the White House on May 18, Trump denied all allegations of collusion, saying, “The entire thing has been a witch hunt. This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Trump’s intelligence leak would be illegal if committed by anyone else, but as president, he has the authority to declassify classified information, and as a result was most likely acting within the law. There were, however, talks of impeachment as the President headed off to the Middle East.

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